ORLANDO, Fla. — 9 Investigates discovered that some children aren’t getting the specialized services they need to succeed in school, due to a state and nationwide shortage of speech therapists.
The situation has gotten so bad that some districts are offering significant sign-on bonuses to lure in new employees.
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Lake County Schools has offered a $3,000 supplement for speech-language pathologists and a $750 critical shortage bonus to join the district, where they’re short 17 speech pathologists.
In Osceola County Schools, where there are 10 openings, they’re offering a higher salary for speech pathologists, providing professional dues for their certificate of clinical competence.
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At Orange County Public Schools, leaders recently met with the teacher’s union to share the intent to offer a $5,800 stipend to current speech pathologists to volunteer to take on additional students during their planning periods.
Those efforts still aren’t enough to cover every student’s needs.
In person for his first semester since COVID-19 hit, at Palm Lake Elementary School, Eddy Rodriguez’ second-grade son is one of the thousands in OCPS on an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. He’s trying to catch up due to speech delays as a toddler.
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“That’s the core basis of everything. He needs that therapy to progress on; and thankfully, it is a mild version of his therapy that he has compared to other kids,” Rodriguez said. “We’re grateful for that, but it’s still lacking. He still needs that service.”
According to his IEP, Rodriguez’ son is supposed to have speech-language therapy 60 minutes each week, but months into the school year, his dad claims that hasn’t happened.
“Eleven weeks into the school year and nobody’s been hired,” said Rodriguez. “So it kind of leaves me and my wife, and some other parents, just kind of like, ‘What are we going to do here?’”
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OCPS leaders told us they’re currently down 19 speech-language pathologists districtwide, which is a vacancy rate of about 10%.
Nationally, experts say the shortage is due to the limited number of openings in graduate programs and three reasons for increased need: COVID-19 has led to speech delays for school-aged kids; seniors are living longer and often need therapy after strokes or developing dementia; and as more premature babies survive due to advances in medicine, more need help with feeding or swallowing disorders.
Orange County leaders told us that families of students who are not currently receiving services as part of their IEPs should schedule make-up time once staff is retained.
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“The longer he goes, the longer my son and other kids will be delayed,” said Rodriguez.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects speech pathology jobs to grow by 21% over the next decade, but that’s too late for Rodriguez’ son.
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