Lawmakers turn to retired teachers as remote learning returns to some schools

By: - January 3, 2022 11:48 am

New Jersey’s teacher shortage predates the pandemic, but COVID-19 has worsened the situation. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

An Assembly panel unanimously advanced a measure Monday that would allow retired teachers and some professional educational staff to temporarily return to work without impacting the status of their pensions.

The panel’s action comes as school districts nationwide are facing a return to remote learning because of staffing issues related to COVID-19 infections. A surge in coronavirus cases has led the state’s two biggest school districts, Newark and Jersey City, to return to remote instruction following their winter breaks.

“School districts are facing a pretty serious staffing shortage crisis right now,” said Jonathan Pushman, director of government relations for the New Jersey School Boards Association, which supported the bill. “It’s only been exacerbated by COVID, and all the folks on this meeting right now are becoming more and more acutely aware of that.

The bill would allow retired teachers to collect their pension while taking a salary. Pushman and the bill’s other supporters said it would provide districts with a stop-gap solution to staffing shortages that predate the pandemic but have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

New Jersey has reported more than 20,000 new virus cases each day since Dec. 29, repeatedly shattering record case counts established earlier in December.

“I think it’s obvious we need this bill. We have needed it since the beginning of this school year, certainly,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), the bill’s prime Assembly sponsor. “The fact that I live with a high school teacher who tells me every day about the problems in her building and how they’re all taking on additional work and students. She has 140 students. It’s crazy.”

Amendments to the bill would require school districts prove to their school boards that they need to hire retired staff. They also set a timeframe for the program, which would allow districts to hire retired teachers and some other educational staff for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. The bill would make returning teachers eligible for a one-year contract that can be renewed for one additional year.

To be eligible for a return, members of the Teacher’s Pension and Annuity Fund must be retired for at least 180 days.

The measure closely resembles a bill allowing retired school nurses to return to the workforce without impacting their pension eligibility. Gov. Phil Murphy signed that bill in November.

New Jersey’s Senate unanimously approved the teacher bill in June but will have to clear the bill once more because of the amendments. That will likely happen on Jan. 10, when both chambers are set to hold their last full votes before the end of the lame-duck session.

Though the bill advanced with much praise Monday, its supporters warned it wouldn’t be enough to fix New Jersey’s longstanding dearth of teachers.

“Things like this are not a silver bullet, but they certainly help,” Pushman said.

New Jersey’s teacher shortage has existed for years in a handful of subject areas like math, science, and second language education, among some others.

The state has moved to head off those shortages, advancing bills that would require it compile district-level shortage data and eliminate a requirement that New Jersey’s teachers live in the state.

“In the long term, we have to really think about how we are going to better recruit, train, and retain our professional staff in all of our public schools,” said Jasey, the Assembly Education Committee’s vice chair.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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