Facing teacher shortage, San Jose Unified counselors substitute in classrooms

Facing a substitute teacher shortage, the San Jose Unified School District is calling on its counselors to step in.

The unusual move has raised concern for advocates, who worry students will lose out on much-needed mental health services and face anxiety after returning to classes following months of distance learning due to COVID-19.

 Stephen McMahon, deputy superintendent for the district said, "The school district represents the community around it. It is hard to get positions filled right now."

He said the district would normally have between 200 to 300 substitute teachers each. But linger effects of the pandemic have thinned the available work pool. Now the district only has about a100 subs each day.

Starting this week, academic and child welfare counselors, intervention specialists, student services coaches, among others in the largest San Jose school district, will be "on call" several times a month for substitute teaching duties--a decision that will hurt students who need mental health support, said members of the San Jose Unified Equity Coalition.

The coalition has fought to remove police from campuses and advocated for more mental health services for students.

"It's a lose-lose situation," said Crystal Calhoun, a member of the coalition whose grandchildren are students in the district. "After 18 months of the pandemic, students are having suicidal thoughts... and anxiety. These kids need more counseling now and not less."

Under the plan, about 130 to 140 counselors and specialists must sign up for substitute teaching for four days a month.

They will receive $300 per day for substituting--$60 more than the normal substituting rate.

The employees can specify their preferred grade and subject areas, but they can be deployed to any school in the district.

The plan was supported and approved by the San Jose Teachers Association. Patrick Bernhardt, president of the union, said in a statement to KTVU," All non-classroom personnel can be required to sub under a rotation plan if no one else is available. It used to be a fairly rare occurrence, but this year it’s become common."

Four members of the San Jose Unified Equity Coalition marched outside the district headquarters Thursday to protest the decision before the school board met inside. They demanded the district prioritize student's mental health.

"There's strong concerns for this backpedaling on counseling," said Kristen Brown, whose kid is a student in the district. "I'm going to echo that we need to be investing more into mental health, into counselors."

Superintendent Nancy Albarran admitted requiring counselors to become substitute teachers is "not ideal," but SJUSD is facing a severe shortage of educators.

"I want to correct the record... specialized personnel have always been called on to substitute," Albarran said. "We're facing a crisis... and I don't want the board to think that we're not prioritizing student's mental health."

Specialized personnel includes counselors, consulting teachers, instructional coaches, intervention specialists, librarians, student support counselors and student services coaches.

According to the superintendent, SJUSD has asked 27 specialized personnel to teach since the plan took effect Wednesday. Twelve of them are counselors.

The emergency plan was approved by the district and the San Jose Teachers Association last week, according to a counselor who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

"Our students need mental health support more than ever," said Jeffie Khalsa, parent and a member of the coalition.

She added that elementary schools in the district only have one counselor at each campus.

School board members briefly addressed the issue during Thursday's meeting.

Trustee Teresa Castellanos applauded the district for finding solutions to a rampant crisis.

"I appreciate that everyone in our district is stepping in to help out with our subs shortage," she said.

The decision comes as tensions mounted between the district and the equity coalition after the district opted to bring police back onto campus for special school events.

SJUSD voted to terminate its contract with San Jose police in June amid pressure from advocates. But weeks later, the district approved a controversial plan that allows police to serve as security guards.

The school district voted Thursday to approve contracts hiring two cops for special school events.

The contracts expire on Dec. 10, according to the district.

Officers Adolfo Acosta and Albert Morales each signed a $4,000 contract, but they will get paid per the hours they work, SJUSD spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said.

District officials said it's essential to ensure safety at special events, and they don't want the responsibility to fall on teachers. But the coalition, which includes students, educators and community organizers, spent 13 months calling for a police-free campus, and continues to protest the decision.

"The only use for the campus police officers right now is extracurricular activities--football games, dances," Maddox said.

As tension boiled over, Calhoun shouted for several minutes at school board members during an August meeting for approving the plan. The board quickly left the meeting and only returned after the coalition left.

KTVU's Jesse Gary contributed to this report.