Staffing scarcity drives stressful, chaotic Berkeley school district working conditions

photo of Berkeley High School
Nick Quinlan/Staff
With the statewide shortage of teachers, Berkeley Unified School District staff, including those at Berkeley High School, face stressful work environments.

California’s teacher staffing shortage has impacted schools across the state. Berkeley Unified School District is no different.

According to Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, President Matt Meyer, staff at BUSD’s elementary, middle and high schools are struggling to balance their usual teaching responsibilities with managing issues related to COVID-19.

“The main thing that we’re hearing is just how tired everyone is, and how people are working very hard just to keep things running,” Meyer said.

BUSD did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

In addition to credentialed teachers, Jeffery Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers noted in a statement that other essential school employees are becoming scarce. According to Freitas and Meyer, this list includes librarians, custodians, instructional assistants and counselors.

Freitas highlighted that this shortage predates the pandemic; educators have been discussing it for decades. Altogether, these shortages not only undermine the quality of public education in California but also escalate “worker unhappiness” within teaching, Freitas added.

“The work of education professionals has become increasingly stressful,” Freitas said in the statement. “While the pandemic has exacerbated feelings of stress and demoralization, those sentiments have been simmering for years.”

Meyer alleged that districts are “hoarding teachers” to preserve their staff sizes. Moreover, teachers were hired much later than usual for this school year to fill in the gaps left by a rise in retirements amid the pandemic, Meyer said.

A Berkeley High School teacher, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said that although there has been at least one substitute teacher on their floor every day, there has never been a class without a teacher.

A lack of substitute teachers is the cherry on top of this statewide shortage of educators, according to Meyer. Although BFT was able to negotiate higher wages for substitutes, there is still a pandemic-driven shortage of substitutes that requires teachers to take on additional work.

Meyer described how when a teacher calls out for the day, if there is not a substitute available, another teacher must take over their workload. Especially at Berkeley High and BUSD’s middle schools, this causes teachers to lose their prep time, or their regular breaks in the day to submit attendance, grade assignments or prepare tests.

“So we solved one problem, but it just creates another one. What we need, mostly is just more subs in the system,” Meyer said. “There’s nothing you can do if you have to run across the school site and help someone else.”

Trouble with student behavior has also increased the stress of teaching, the anonymous teacher noted. Students have become much more attached to their phones, Meyer said. Additionally, the anonymous teacher said that a student recently assaulted a teacher and certain popular TikTok trends have resulted in the destruction of bathrooms.

A lack of safety officers has led to partial chaos in Berkeley High’s halls, according to the anonymous teacher. Students are skateboarding down the halls and onto the street and at least six fights led to two police cars being called to the school, they said.

“Some teachers have ‘sicked out,’ or called out sick to make a statement,” the anonymous teacher said. “One teacher had a student lethally threaten her … if a culture of anarchy cements itself or builds a precedent, that could send a wave of issues years down the line.”

These problems coupled with substitute scarcity and the pandemic have decreased morale at Berkeley High, the anonymous teacher said. This has led to a desire to spread public awareness about the safety issues Berkeley High is suffering, they added.

According to Meyer, entering the school year amid the delta variant surge was “mentally very disruptive” for teachers. Having to handle the weight of parents’ concerns, teaching and public health protocols has been stressful for educators, especially with no added mental health support from BUSD, he said.

“It’s still the beginning of the year, but it doesn’t feel like the beginning of the year,” Meyer said. “We’re gonna have a problem in a couple months where people kind of reach the end of their capacity, but there’s still a lot of (the) year left. That’s something the district needs to take seriously.”

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @katherineshok.