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'It's the worst we've ever seen:' More than 5,000 vacancies reported among support staff in Florida schools

State lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday that’s looking to address the critical shortages of education support staff.

FLORIDA, USA — The gaps in schools are being felt across Florida. 

State lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday that’s looking to address the critical shortages of education support staff, which includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and education paraprofessionals.

“They didn't have any drivers," said Marian Phillips, Nassau Educational Support Personnel Association President. "They had utilized everybody. No sub. So, everybody in the office was driving that had a CDL."

Phillips is also the district's supervisor secretary of attendance.

She went to the Senate Education Committee meeting in Tallahassee to share her personal experience from last week, which shows how support staff shortages are impacting the Nassau County School District.

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"As a matter of fact, the superintendent asked that I go over to transportation because they had everybody out of the office in transportation," Phillips explained. "They needed somebody to answer the phones, because those phones continue to ring all day long, especially when the children are getting out of school or when they're headed to school."

According to Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar, the state started the school year with just under 4,000 (3,753 advertised) vacancies among support staff, but is now at well more than 5,000 (5,222 advertised) vacancies halfway through. 

“It is the worst we've ever seen," Spar told First Coast News. “Not only is it not normal, we've never seen numbers like that. We normally see a decrease in vacancies as the year goes on, we're seeing a significant increase in vacancies around the state."

Spar and Phillips are in support of Florida House Bill 1017 and Senate Bill 1576, which directs districts to first figure out which support staff positions are most severely understaffed, and then to fund incentives to recruit and retain employees in these “critical shortage” areas.

The bill also requires districts to provide paraprofessionals with career development opportunities.

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Nassau Teachers’ Association President and longtime district educator Chris Pagel is also in Tallahassee with Phillips this week to speak on behalf of teachers.

“There's sometimes where if I'm out unexpectedly, they just have to cancel PE classes because there's not a sub," Pagel said. "And that affects the other teachers, because while their classes are with me, that's a big 30-minute chunk of time for their planning. I mean, we're short all the way around, there's just no way around it."

Pagel and Phillips hope they can collaborate with lawmakers to come up with other solutions to make teacher and support staff positions more attractive.

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