HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - With the new school year just three weeks away, the state Department of Education is still trying to fill 625 teacher vacancies.
That's despite major recruitment pushes in Hawaii and on the mainland.
Teacher shortages are a perennial problem for Hawaii schools, especially in rural areas or for hard-to-fill subject areas. But this area, the situation appears to be more acute.
Teachers union President Corey Rosenlee said last school year, 500 classrooms didn't have a teacher on the first day of school.
"We could find no one until we started to put in substitutes," Rosenlee said, adding that the significant teacher vacancies are affecting the quality of education at Hawaii schools.
"Tens of thousands of kids each day went to school and didn't have a teacher. That's the real travesty," he said.
DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz says the tight turnaround between the end of one school year and the beginning of another makes it a challenge to hire new teachers to fill all the vacancies.
"We need to make sure these teachers are not only qualified, but have been thoroughly vetted," she said. "We're talking about people coming into our schools and working with our children."
The biggest vacancies can be found in high schools and Leeward Oahu communities. Historically, certain subject areas have also been harder to fill. They include special education, and high school science and math.
The DOE said it has worked to bolster its recruiting. Recruitment started earlier this year, and more mainland cities were targeted. This past spring, Hawaii recruiters tried to entice teachers from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Portland. The DOE also hosted a virtual job fair.
But officials note that hiring is just part of the equation. The state is trying to do more to persuade teachers to stay.
Hawaii has about 13,000 public school teachers. According to the DOE, for those who are hired with teacher training, about 40 percent leave within five years.
Rosenlee has said Hawaii's teacher turnover rate is among the highest in the nation, a problem he attributes to a lack of teacher support and a failure to offer competitive salaries. The HSTA added that even though teacher salaries in Hawaii fall just below the national average, they are also the lowest in the country when pay rates are adjusted for the state's high cost of living.
Dela Cruz said the department has done much in recent years to give teachers more support. "We will pair teachers who need help, need assistance with more veteran teachers," she said.
If schools aren't able to fill all the vacancies -- which isn't very likely at this point -- the vacancies will be filled with substitutes as recruitment continues.
That's a practice Rosenlee wants to see come to an end.
"Every child, regardless of where they live should have a quality teacher," he said. "When we deny those kids that opportunity, it is bad for the child."