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COVID-19 creates dire US shortage of teachers, school staff

SAN FRANCISCO • One desperate California school district is sending flyers home in students' lunchboxes, telling parents it's "now hiring." Elsewhere, principals are filling in as crossing guards, teachers are being offered signing bonuses and schools are moving back to online learning.

Now that schools have welcomed students back to classrooms, they face a new challenge: a shortage of teachers and staff the likes of which some districts say they have never seen.

Public schools have struggled for years with teacher shortages, particularly in math, science, special education and languages. But the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem. The stress of teaching in the COVID-19 era has triggered a spike in retirements and resignations. Schools also need to hire staffers like tutors and special aides to make up for learning losses and more teachers to run online school for those not ready to return.

Teacher shortages and difficulties filling openings have been reported in Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota, where one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies. Across Texas, the main districts in Houston, Waco and elsewhere reported hundreds of teaching vacancies at the start of the year.

Several schools nationwide have had to shut classrooms because of a lack of teachers.

In Michigan, Eastpointe Community Schools abruptly moved its middle school back to remote learning this week because it doesn't have enough teachers. The small district north of Detroit has 43 positions vacant — a quarter of its teaching staff. When several middle school teachers resigned without notice last week, the district shifted to online classes to avoid sending in unqualified substitutes, spokeswoman Caitlyn Kienitz said.

"You don't want just an adult who can pass a background check, you want a teacher in front of your kids," Kienitz said. "This is obviously not ideal, but we're able to make sure they're getting each subject area from a teacher certified to teach it."

According to a June survey of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic drove them to plan to leave the profession earlier than expected. Another survey by the RAND Corp. said the pandemic exacerbated attrition, burnout and stress on teachers, who were almost twice as likely as other employed adults to feel frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.

The lack of teachers is "really a nationwide issue and definitely a statewide issue," said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of California's State Board of Education.

A school district in California's West Contra Costa County is considering hiring out-of-state math educators to teach online while a substitute monitors students in person.

"This is the most acute shortage of labor we have ever had," associate superintendent Tony Wold said. "We opened this year with 50 — that's five-zero — teaching positions open. That means students are going to 50 classrooms that do not have a permanent teacher."

There are an additional 100 openings for non-credentialed but critical staff like instructional aides — who help English learners and special needs students — custodians, cafeteria workers and others, Wold said.

California's largest district, Los Angeles Unified with 600,000 students, has more than 500 teacher vacancies, a fivefold increase from previous years, spokeswoman Shannon Haber said.

Schools try to fill in with substitutes, but they're in short supply, too. Only about a quarter of the pool of 1,000 qualified substitutes is willing to work in Fresno Unified, said Nikki Henry, a spokeswoman for the central California district with 70,000 students and 12,000 staffers.

At Berkeley High School, a shortage of substitutes means teachers are asked to fill in during their prep periods, leading to exhaustion and burnout typically not felt at the start of a school year.

"We are absolutely strained. This has been an incredibly stressful start to the year," said Hasmig Minassian, a ninth-grade teacher who describes physical and mental exhaustion as she tries to juggle staffing needs and the emotional needs of students who are showing signs of more mental fragility and learning loss.

"It doesn't feel like there are enough adults on these campuses to keep kids really safe. We feel short-staffed in a way we've never felt before," she said. "You know the early videos of nurses crying in their cars? I kind of expect those to come out about teachers."

The California shortages range from dire to less severe in places that planned ahead and beat the competition, but those are the minority, said Darling-Hammond of the board of education.

Money is not the problem. School districts have the funds to hire staff, thanks to billions in federal and state pandemic relief funding.

"We're all competing for a shrinking piece of the pie," said Mike Ghelber, assistant superintendent at the Morongo Unified School District in the Mojave Desert, which has more than 200 openings for special education aides, custodians, cafeteria workers and others. "I don't know if everybody is getting snatched up, or if they don't want to teach in the COVID era, but it's like the well has dried up."

The district of 8,000 students has ads in newspapers, radio and social media. Teachers are packing "now hiring" flyers into kids' lunchboxes, with a long list of openings so families can spread the word. In the meantime, everyone is pitching in.

"Principals and administrators are out being crossing guards. Secretaries are directing traffic because we're short on supervisors," Ghelber said.

The shortages raise concerns that schools will hire underqualified teachers, particularly in low-income communities where it's already harder to fill positions, Darling-Hammond said.

Class sizes also are expanding.

Mount Diablo Unified School District, which serves 28,000 students east of San Francisco, has had to fill several elementary school classrooms at the maximum capacity of 32 students. It's not ideal for social distancing but frees up teachers for online school.

About 150 kids initially signed up for distance learning, but with spiking infections blamed on the highly contagious delta variant, the number ballooned to 600 when school reopened. The same happened in Fresno, where enrollment in remote learning exploded to 3,800 from 450.

Superintendent Adam Clark said the Mount Diablo district is offering $5,000 signing bonuses for speech pathologists and $1,500 for paraeducators who help students with learning needs.

San Francisco Unified is offering a similar starting bonus for 100 paraeducator jobs. Nearby West Contra Costa County Unified has set $6,000 signing bonuses for teachers, with a third paid out after the first month and rest when the teacher enters year three.

Districts in Oklahoma, North Carolina, New Jersey and elsewhere are offering a range of cash incentives for new teachers, particularly in low-income and low-performing schools.

Of a dozen officials interviewed in California districts, only one said it was facing no shortages.

Long Beach Unified, the state's fourth-largest district with over 70,000 students, anticipated the need last spring for a hiring spree of about 400 jobs.

"We went full aggressive," assistant superintendent David Zaid said, including beefing up human resources for a 24-hour turnaround on contract offers.

A virtual interview team worked through the summer. Recruitment events drew hundreds of applicants, and as HR employees met hiring benchmarks, they got rewards like catered breakfasts and an ice cream truck.

"We probably would have experienced the same shortages as others," Zaid said. "But we became much more assertive, and as a result, we are not in the same position."

Gregory named CDF Director (copy)

HOUSTON • Former Executive Director of the of the Okolona Chamber of Commerce Patsy Gregory has been named the new Director of the Chickasaw Development Foundation.

The organization announced Gregory’s hiring earlier this month, and she has hit the ground running since then.

“It's been a whirlwind,” Gregory said of her first days on the job. She spent much of that time introducing herself to various city and county officials as well as members of the area’s clubs and organizations.

Gregory replaces Sean Johnson, who announced last month that he would be departing to take on a new role in Cleveland.

Gregory said she’s eager to use her new position to help unite the county.

“I'm excited about the possibilities and the opportunities,” she said. “When I interviewed with the CDF board, the nominating committee, their number one thing was working to bring the county together, and so, as you know, that has been a passion of mine for several years, and I look forward to that.”

As far as her ideas, she suggested maybe taking an approach similar to what she did in her last position.

“Maybe do some things, kind of like when I was in Okolona, with task forces to focus on some areas of work,” she said.

Gregory is no stranger to Chickasaw County. She previously served as the Executive Director of the Okolona Chamber of Commerce for around a decade, and she served as the Economic Development Liaison for the City of Okolona for the last two-and-a-half years.

She hopes to use her experiences gained in her time with the city to help the county.

“I think I have a running start,” Gregory said. “I have some knowledge and some contacts and resources that will be of benefit, but I want top find out what the people want to do and run with that. I want to make sure we're communicating, everybody across the board.”

Of the things that she has seen in her short time in Chickasaw County, one thing has stood out above the rest: People willing to step up on their own time to better the community.

“I've been very excited to see … (that) volunteerism is huge here, and so I'm glad to be a part of it, and I hope I can contribute something,” she said.

Police: Grocery store gunman was vendor, didn't have target

COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. • A gunman who killed one person and wounded 14 others in a Tennessee grocery store did not appear to target anyone specifically as he rampaged through the building on a sunny Thursday afternoon, police said. The entire shooting was over within minutes as first responders swarmed the scene.

On Friday, some of the wounded were still in critical condition and fighting for their lives, Collierville Police Chief Dale Lane said at a morning news conference.

Still, the outcome could have been worse, he said. The shooter died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound within a couple of minutes of police arriving, and they arrived almost immediately at the Kroger in the wealthy suburb outside of Memphis.

The gunman acted alone and was a third-party vendor to the store who was on site on a daily basis, Lane said. He was later identified by Major David Townsend as UK Thang. Police searched his home Thursday and removed electronic devices, Lane said.

"We all want to know the why," Lane said of the shooter's motive. "But today, less than 24 hours, we're not ready to tell you that."

The victims included 10 employees and five customers.

Lane identified the woman who was killed as Olivia King. Friends told The Commercial Appeal she was a widowed mother of three.

On Facebook, one of King's sons, Wes King, posted about his mother's death. He wrote that he had spoken to the trauma surgeon and learned his mother was shot in the chest.

"They tried to save her at the hospital to no avail," he wrote. "I apologize for the graphic details, but this type of crime needs to stop being glossed over and sanitized. No one deserves this."

Kroger worker Brignetta Dickerson told WREG-TV she was working a cash register when she heard what at first she thought were balloons popping.

"And, here he comes right behind us and started shooting," Dickerson said. "And, he kept on shooting, shooting, shooting. He shot one of my co-workers in the head and shot one of my customers in the stomach."

Lane said police received a call around 1:30 p.m. about the shooting and arrived almost immediately, finding multiple people with gunshot wounds upon entering the building.

He said a police SWAT team and other officers went aisle to aisle plucking panicked people from hiding and taking them out safely. He said the shooter was male but did not identify him further.

"We found people hiding in freezers, in locked offices. They were doing what they had been trained to do: run, hide, fight," the chief said.

Dickerson, the employee, said her co-worker, who is in his 20s, was shot in the head but able to ask her to notify his mother.

"I left her a voicemail that he was alert and talking," Dickerson said, unable to immediately reach her.

Another employee, Glenda McDonald, described the chaotic scene to WHBQ-TV.

"I was walking back towards the floral department and I heard a gunshot," she said. "It sounded like it was coming from the deli. And I ran out the front door and they had already shot the front door."

Jason Lusk, 39, had just left a tool store beside Kroger when he heard some women screaming in the parking lot about a shooter. He didn't see the gunman, but heard 10 to 15 rounds in rapid succession at the grocery store.

"It sounded like they were directly over my head," he said, adding he could feel the concussion of every shot and knew the weapon was powerful. Even at a distance of some 40 yards, he said, he worried that he and others around him were in grave danger.

"As the firing started, I dove in front of my vehicle onto the ground to provide the most cover for myself and instructed the people around me panicking, trying to get into the cars, not to get in their cars, but to actually hide," he said.

Then police arrived within minutes and "they swarmed that place," Lusk said. He added that he used his phone to record at least two of the gunman's final shots, and then a final gunshot on his last recording of the SWAT team on the scene.

At a new briefing afterward, Lane called it a sad day for his department.

"I've been involved in this for 34 years and I've never seen anything like it," he said.

Collierville is a growing suburb of more than 51,000 people with a median household income of about $114,000, according to U.S. census figures. Set in a rural and historic area, the town square has largely become known for its boutiques and bed and breakfasts.

Earlier this year, Tennessee became the latest state to allow most adults 21 and older to carry handguns without first clearing a state-level background check and training. The measure was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee over objections from some law enforcement groups and gun control advocates concerned the measure would possibly lead to more gun violence.

The Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati, Ohio, issued a statement that it was "deeply saddened" by the shooting and was cooperating with law enforcement. The company in 2019 asked its customers not to openly carry guns while visiting its stores.

A Kroger spokesperson said the Collierville store will be closed until further notice.

Lights were still on in the store after nightfall on Thursday, chrysanthemums set out front. The parking lot, entirely roped off with police tape, was still full of cars, with a heavy police presence. Neighboring businesses, including a fast food restaurant and an auto parts store, were closed.

Mississippi AG seeks to end family lawsuit after dad's death

JACKSON • Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch filed papers Wednesday seeking to dismiss a lawsuit in a family feud over the care and finances of her 88-year-old father because he has died.

"William O. Fitch departed this life on September 22, 2021," the attorney general wrote in the court papers filed that day in Marshall County Chancery Court.

Lynn Fitch has been in a court dispute with her 80-year-old stepmother, Aleita Fitch.

Chancery court records show Aleita Fitch filed a lawsuit against Lynn Fitch on April 1. That was after the attorney general moved her father from an Oxford hospital in late March without his wife's permission to another hospital before finally transferring him to a nursing home, said Aleita Fitch's attorney, Ray Hill. Aleita Fitch was not able to visit her husband for 78 days and did not know where he was, Hill said.

An obituary for Bill Fitch on the Holly Springs Funeral Home website Thursday initially did not list Aleita Fitch among the family members, but her name was added later.

Hill said the attorney general sent state "bodyguards" unannounced to Aleita Fitch's home, the family farm and the hospital where Bill Fitch was being treated, and they took money, firearms and personal belongings from the house without permission.

Lynn Fitch said in court documents that she did not want her stepmother knowing where Bill Fitch was being treated because Aleita Fitch was emotionally and verbally abusive.

John Mayo, the attorney general's personal lawyer, said the decision to move him was made after consulting her father's physician. A hospital staffer filed a vulnerable adult complaint against Aleita Fitch after voicing concerns about her mistreatment of her husband, the lawyer said.

When Lynn Fitch visited her father in the hospital, "he appeared confused, delirious and malnourished, had limited mobility, and was generally unable to care for himself," the attorney general's lawyer wrote in a court document.

She said Aleita Fitch failed to tell her and her sister about a stroke and heart attack their father had in January. Bill Fitch also was diagnosed with dementia, and that was not disclosed to his daughters.

Aleita Fitch said Lynn Fitch had been making business decisions for her husband, including the decision to shut down operations at Fitch Farms, a hunting retreat where guests can stay in the home of Confederate general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Bill Fitch purchased the Forrest home in Hernando, moved it 40 miles (64 kilometers) to Fitch Farms and restored it.

Lynn Fitch said in court documents she did not seek sole control over her father's finances but wanted a conservator appointed to prevent Aleita Fitch's "squandering and endangerment" of assets.