A person  slides a blue mop across a  floor


For three of her four years as superintendent, Libby Bonesteel has dealt with the effects of COVID-19 on students and staff in her small Vermont school district, so she’s used to pitching in when something unexpected occurs. But last fall, as she mowed the lawn at one school while board members and community volunteers were inside cleaning the facility, Bonesteel admits she felt the weight of what educators now face.

Staffing shortages—custodians, teacher assistants, food service workers—have plagued Bonesteel’s Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools District, which serves 1,200 students at four campuses. For much of the fall, the district had to rely on volunteers to meet basic needs as the area struggled to deal with the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

“It’s been a bit of an overwhelming year,” Bonesteel says, noting the district continues to deal with “significant vacancies” even after hiring three custodians in December. “It’s getting a little better, but the first half of the year was amazingly hard. We limped heavily into the holiday season.”

As the nation grapples with the “Great Resignation,” school districts across the U.S. also are in an ongoing battle to hire and retain staff who are overwhelmed, exhausted, and feeling disrespected and underpaid. While the hardest to fill positions have been noncertified or part-time—bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, substitute teachers— numerous districts also are fearful that teacher and administrator turnover will further stress the education ecosystem.

“This is like peeling an onion and being allergic to onions,” says Rich Long, executive director of the Learning First Alliance, which represents 14 national education organizations. “It’s just a bad situation all around.”

Districts like Bonesteel’s have taken drastic measures, from broadcasting videotaped pleas for volunteers so schools can stay open, shifting teachers around to cover classes, and bringing in the National Guard to serve as bus drivers. In Oklahoma, where staffing shortages have forced more than half of schools to close or switch to remote learning, the state is allowing its employees to work as substitute teachers and keep their current jobs. Similar efforts to find substitutes are taking place in other states, such as Michigan.

“This didn’t happen overnight,” says Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. “Shortages have been an issue, but the pandemic is exacerbating the problem we have. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for this.”

A juggling act

Missouri’s Northwest R-I School District has been proactive in meeting its staffing challenges. The district, which serves 6,600 students in a rural county about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis, increased its pay for substitute teachers from $95 to $145 a day in 2020, offered benefits to many of its paraprofessionals, and has overstaffed teachers in its schools to keep class sizes down.

“Overall, we’re satisfied with where we are with certified staff, but the challenges have come with the classified positions,” says Superintendent Desi Kirchhofer. “Food service, custodial staff, before and after-school child care—that’s been a struggle.”

During a cabinet meeting last fall, Chief Operating Officer Kim Hawk suggested hiring high school students to fill the vacancies. Hawk’s logic, Kirchhofer says, made sense because many students already work after school at the local Walmart, Walgreens, and various fast-food restaurants.

“We’ve been advertising in many ways, trying to get parents and retirees to apply, but that wasn’t working, so we held a job fair and let the students know what positions would be available and what they could possibly do,” Kirchhofer says.

Six students have been hired to fill custodial positions at their feeder elementary and middle schools, and the district is looking to grow the program. Meanwhile, Kirchhofer says the bus service company the district contracts with “is combining routes every day because they haven’t been fully staffed all year long.”

Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, says that’s a common problem nationwide. School bus drivers typically are older, and many opted to retire rather than face the risks of COVID. In urban and suburban communities where delivery services have skyrocketed, districts are struggling to compete on salaries.

“Buses were not running throughout the 2020-21 school year, and we lost an entire school year hiring cycle for drivers because no one knew what the landscape was going to look like,” Macysyn says, noting new drivers typically receive six to 12 weeks of training after they are hired before they start work. “We lost the bench because the drivers who were backups had to step up to fill the vacancies, if they chose to come back in the first place.”

Of the 480,000 school buses utilized each day in the U.S., about 40 percent are outsourced through contractors, Macysyn says, noting those companies also have struggled to fill vacancies. “Hypothetically,” he says, “there’s some spot in the U.S. that doesn’t have bus driver shortages, but I haven’t seen it yet.”

In Camden, New Jersey, public school parents were offered a $1,000 one-time stipend to drive their children to school. About 70 signed up for the program; parents of students in grades pre-k through eight also were offered city bus passes to accompany their child to school. (The program already was in place for high schoolers.)

While transportation has gotten the most attention, Katrina McCombs, superintendent of the Camden City School District, says her urban school system has struggled to fill other types of positions as well, including substitutes and some certified staff openings. That has hampered efforts to implement an elementary co-teaching model designed to curb pandemic-related learning loss, she says.

“We’re constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul to keep an adult in the classroom,” McCombs says. “It’s a challenge and a juggling act, and it’s taking away from the actual intent we have for these positions. But we’re persisting. We’re persisting.”

The sky has fallen

In Michigan, staffing shortages stretch across all areas, and the pipeline for teachers and administrators is drying up, Kerr says. The number of prospective teachers enrolling in and completing preparation programs in the state has dropped by more than half over the past seven years, according to a report from the Michigan Department of Education.

“The sky has fallen,” Kerr says. “It’s a critical crisis right now.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, public schools today have 567,000 fewer educators than before the pandemic. The National Education Association (NEA) reported in February that 43 percent of the posted jobs are going unfilled.

Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington education economist, says shortages are “breaking along existing lines of disparity.” His recent analysis of district needs in Washington showed low-income schools had twice as many vacancies for paraeducators and classified staff as wealthier districts.

“We should not talk about teacher shortages in a generic way because it doesn’t move the conversation forward much,” Goldhaber says. “The degree to which shortages or staffing challenges exist varies from school system to school system. But 25 years of research finds the same pattern again and again in different contexts: The more disadvantaged kids you have, the more extreme your staffing challenges will be.”

Kerr says Michigan is looking at various approaches, including loan forgiveness for teachers and revamping the certification process. Grow your own programs are becoming popular, especially in urban areas like Detroit. For the rest of this school year, anyone who works in a Michigan district can be a substitute teacher, regardless of qualifications.

“In the short term, yes, we need a warm body, but long term, I’m concerned about the significant education impact this can have over time,” Kerr says. “While you’re putting adults in front of kids, you can’t lose sight of the fact that you need to have highly qualified, certified people doing this work.”

Steve Matthews has been superintendent for 14 years in the 6,700-student Novi Community School District, described by Kerr as one of the “premiere districts in the state.” Located in a high-income suburb northwest of Detroit, Novi has increased pay for custodians, added two nurses and a high school dean of students, and is hiring building substitutes to work at individual schools rather than having them travel from campus to campus. The district is providing bus service only four days a week due to driver shortages, however.

Fixing staff issues

While the immediate challenge is hiring classified staff, Matthews is worried about the long-term fallout for teachers and administrators. Many have told him they are burning out due to the daily pressures they face.

In early February, the NEA released a poll that said
55 percent of teachers are planning to leave the profession sooner than they originally had. They cite burnout and additional work as the primary reasons. The same appears to be true among administrators. In a three-month period in North Texas, for example, eight superintendents from the Dallas-Fort Worth area announced they are resigning or retiring.

“No question, the demands have increased, and the lines between work and non-work time have become blurred,” Matthews says. “The challenge we face is helping the community understand the stress and difficulty teachers and administrators are going through. You’ve got academic needs, social and emotional needs, and health issues related to COVID, plus they must make sure students wear masks and use hand sanitizer. Our staff is just exhausted.”

Chad Aldeman, policy director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, critiques coverage and public perception of staffing shortages. He says districts with high vacancies need to be “very clear and transparent” with their communities about issues such as salaries and working conditions for staff.

“Some of these shortages are caused by things outside your control. Variants you can’t control, but you can show employees that they will be working in a safe environment. You can show kids and families what it would look like,” Aldeman says. “That’s a start.”

Kerr is part of a coalition in Michigan working with business, philanthropic organizations, and higher education leaders looking at ways to solve the state’s long-term staffing issues. But, she notes, understanding what the problems are and fixing them are two different things.

“There are barriers that we’re going to have to break down,” she says. “Everyone says they’re willing to do what they need to do. Conversations are great, but barriers go up when you start looking at action steps vs. talking about it. We’ve got to be creative. Education has a significant economic impact on this country, and we’re going to have to work to fix it.”

For superintendents like Matthews and Bonesteel, fixing issues around staffing is a must.

“Resiliency has a whole new definition for me than it did before,” Bonesteel says. “Teachers, staff, and people in general are beyond surge capacity. Last year (2020-21), we thought if we could just get through the year, we’d be OK. When that wasn’t the case, many people on staff just became overwhelmed by the anxiety of it all.”

In the second half of this school year, Bonesteel says her district has focused on wellness for students and staff. The only way to make it through this stressful time, she believes, is by being willing to “think outside the box on literally everything.”

“There’s not much we can do in the short-term to solve the hiring piece, but we need to be open to all ideas,” she says. “We have to look at our family leave policies, our substitute policies, how we can bring people in and show them that they are in a caring, welcoming environment. We have to look at pay. Districts around me have been offering bonuses and we didn’t do that, so that hasn’t helped. We’ve got to be open to anything and everything.”

Glenn Cook (glenncook117@gmail.com), a contributing editor to American School Board Journal, is a freelance writer and photographer in Northern Virginia.


Use of federal funds

School districts are expected to benefit from a massive influx of stimulus funds passed by Congress over the past two years. But, despite urgent needs in many districts, using that money to shore up staffing shortages comes with significant risks.

In three stimulus bills passed in 2020 and 2021, Congress has provided almost $190.5 billion to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. The vast majority—90 percent or more, depending on the state—is being sent to school districts, which will have a large amount of discretion in how most of the funds will be spent.

However, the funds also come with a catch known as the “fiscal cliff,” because all federal dollars must be obligated by September 2024, and no additional money is guaranteed.

“Some districts are cognizant of the fiscal cliff, while others are less so,” says Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington education economist. “There’s a delicate balance between staffing up to help with academic recovery and staffing up so much that a couple of years down the line you have to lay off a bunch of people. I’m worried what will happen, especially in high poverty districts, when the money runs out.”

Among other categories, schools can use the funding for transportation, health-related expenditures (including substitute teachers), construction, and support for nontraditional students, including recent graduates who have not found work or post-secondary opportunities. At least
20 percent of the money must be used to address learning loss.

“Most important, the local districts have to use the federal money they’ve gotten wisely,” says Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of California-Berkeley. “You can’t blow it all in one year but look at how you can offset problems you’ll face over the next few years.”

Among Rothstein’s suggestions are recruitment incentives, especially for the hardest-to-fill positions, and retention bonuses for district employees who choose to stay. “You have to look at ways you can tie people to the job longer,” he says. “Ultimately, if the labor market stays strong, school districts will have to compete with low-wage private sector jobs for employees. They have to pay competitive wages.”

Chad Aldeman, policy director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, says the relief funds have the potential to help high-poverty districts combat shortages, at least in the short term. He says using the funds for stipends and adding staff to human resources departments are two ways to meet the short-term needs, noting districts should “think about using the money for roles that you’re going to fill anyway.”

“It’s definitely better to have the money to face the shortage than not at all, but what we’ve done is shift the problem and punt it into the future,” Aldeman says. “The longer-term question is determining how we fund schools properly. That’s a problem, though, that schools have been fighting since long before the pandemic.”

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