PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Providence’s teacher shortage has increased since the start of the school year to 134 vacant positions, signaling more teachers have left the district mid-year even as administrators race to do more hiring.

The state-run school district is kicking off the hiring season for fall 2022 earlier than usual, offering a slew of new cash incentives to both new and existing teachers in certain jobs that are hard to fill.

A newly hired middle school math teacher, for example, would get $10,000 on top of their salary if they stay for three years, plus an extra $2,500 if they have three years experience in the subject, and yet another $2,500 if they sign their contract before March.

Target 12 reported in August that nearly 10% of Providence’s teacher workforce had left the district so far in 2021, contributing to the shortage going into the school year.

There were 124 vacant teaching positions at the start of this school year, 73 of them categorized as classroom jobs, the district said at the time. (The vacancy numbers only include Providence Teachers Union members, not other staff.)

That number has now gone up by another 10 vacant teaching jobs, according to spokesperson Victor Morente, with 93 of those being classroom positions and 41 categorized as support positions.

Morente said the increase in classroom vacancies is mainly due to a “deeper dive” by the district that determined some of the previous non-classroom vacancies should have been classified as classroom jobs.

“Since Oct. 10, 2021, the district has made 19 hires and it held a hiring fair on December 1 which resulted in more than 30 people submitting applications for the 2022-2023 school year,” Morente said. “PPSD will continue to promote the recently announced incentives to attract and retain staff, particularly in hard-to-fill areas.”

The number of teachers who have left the district since the start of the school year was not immediately available.

“Our students need teachers in front of them every day, every period,” said Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union. She said other teachers are forced to pick up the slack when there are vacant positions.

“Those 130-plus vacancies are really draining for us here because we have to cover those classes on what is supposed to be our planning time,” Calabro said, “I know folks that have been covering literally every day since the school year started.”

Teachers are paid extra if they have to cover a class during their planning period, but the vacant jobs add an additional layer on top of the day-to-day teacher absences that require coverage.

Calabro said she is “really pleased” with the new incentives, which include $8,000 for new and existing English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers; $2,500 for special education teachers pursuing ESL certification; and $2,500 for teachers pursuing a dual language certification.

“We are literally at Defcon 1 in terms of trying to find folks to fill all of these vacancies,” Calabro said. “We need to be as creative, inventive and supportive as we can.”

Morente pointed to national news coverage of a shortage of teachers in other districts, especially those in high-poverty areas.

“Anecdotally, RIDE has heard that both traditional and charter schools across the state are facing teacher workforce challenges,” Morente said. “It’s worth noting that Providence’s situation is consistent with national trends that show high-poverty districts and high-need subject areas being disproportionately affected by staffing shortages.”

But while Providence may not be unique in needing more teachers, Calabro pointed out that many Providence teachers are moving to other Rhode Island districts, not leaving the profession.

“There’s a teaching shortage in the country, absolutely,” Calabro said. “But I think ours is exacerbated by the lack of trust” between the teachers and the state leaders that took control of the district.

She has expressed optimism about the new acting superintendent, Dr. Javier Montañez, a former Providence teacher and principal who has been appointed for at least the current school year.

“It’s sad because Dr. Montañez is really trying hard to raise morale and to be communicative and collaborative, it’s just that people have reached their frustration level with all that’s being piled on them,” Calabro said.

At a meeting of the state’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education earlier this week district leaders said they are attempting to improve their exit interview strategy, after revealing at a recent Senate Oversight hearing that few teachers have been interviewed about why they’re leaving the district.

Zack Scott, the deputy superintendent of operations, said teachers are now being mailed postcards with QR codes to get them to the exit interview form. Previously, teachers said they were being emailed exit interview forms after they lost access to their school email accounts.

He cited the “stress and challenges” of the pandemic as part of the reason why teachers are leaving.

“It’s often hard to get people to respond,” Scott said. “We’re also starting the process of calling teachers of color who have left.” The district has a goal of hiring more teachers of color to better reflect the diversity of the student population.

One of the district’s current incentives, which will continue next school year, is up to $25,000 in loan forgiveness for educators of color. The money is provided by the Rhode Island Foundation.

Montañez told the council members he is hopeful the financial incentives will help “recruit and retain top candidates for our schools.”

The hard-to-fill areas eligible for the hiring incentives include middle and high school math and science, special education, dual language and ESL, speech and language pathologists, psychologists and social workers.

Relocation incentives up to $3,000 are also available for teachers moving from another state other than Rhode Island, Massachusetts or Connecticut.

“We need incredible teachers in all our schools to offer Providence students the high-quality education they deserve,” R.I Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said in a statement. “These incentives will help PPSD be more competitive as it seeks top teaching talent so that we can help students excel and continue move our district forward. If you’re interested in a rewarding career, we encourage you to apply.”

More specifics about the incentives are available here, and the application to teach in Providence is here.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.