Recruitment & Retention From Our Research Center

How Bad Are School Staffing Shortages? What We Learned by Asking Administrators

By Mark Lieberman — October 12, 2021 2 min read
In this April 17, 2020, file photo dormant school buses are secured at a facility in Tempe, Ariz. Planning is underway to prepare for reopening Arizona's public schools in the next school year and the state's top education official says the resulting decisions that will be made and the guidance provided to local districts won't come too soon. Some districts start their school years as early as mid-July, with most others following in August, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman told KJZZ.
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More than three-quarters of district leaders and principals say they’re experiencing at least moderate staffing shortages in their school buildings this year, according to the newly published results of a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey.

Fifteen percent said shortages are “very severe,” 25 percent said they’re “severe,” and another 37 percent classified staffing challenges as “moderate.”

Just 5 percent of administrators said they aren’t experiencing any staffing shortages in their schools or districts this year. Another 18 percent said the shortages are “mild” or “very mild.”

The shortages are most acute, according to the survey results, among substitute teachers, bus drivers, and instructional aides.

Slightly more than three-quarters of respondents said they’re having trouble finding enough substitutes to cover teacher absences; 68 percent said bus drivers are hard to come by; and 55 percent said they’re struggling to fill open positions for paraprofessionals and instructional aides.

Full-time teaching positions, too, are causing headaches for administrators. Just shy of half of respondents identified teachers among the roles they’re struggling to fill.

Other roles where shortages are a problem include cafeteria workers, custodians, nurses, and mental health counselors. Twelve percent of respondents said they’re struggling to hire enough administrative assistants. A small but not insignificant number—between 3 and 5 percent—even said they’re struggling to hire principals and district-level administrators.

Districts plagued by staffing shortages are taking a wide variety of approaches to addressing the issues—15 percent are offering recruitment bonuses; 22 percent are turning to contractors; 18 percent are hosting job fairs; 17 percent are asking volunteers to fill the gaps.

But by far the most common tactic districts are employing is asking current employees to take on additional responsibilities. Roughly two-thirds of principals and district leaders say they’re taking that route.

Staffing shortages are hardly a new phenomenon for schools, particularly in rural areas.

But district leaders across the country have told Education Week that this year’s problems far outweigh those of previous years. School workers have been increasingly vocal about their frustrations on social media and in union negotiations.

Pent-up frustrations around poor working conditions and minimal benefits; frustrations with protocols designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19; and concerns about the health risks of working in and around unvaccinated children are among the factors creating a perfect storm of frustration and chaos for schools during this third school year touched by the COVID-19 era.

The results include diminished meal options and chaotic food distribution; protracted bus routes and crowded vehicles; and even temporarily shuttered classrooms.

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