Recruitment & Retention

No Bus Drivers, Custodians, or Subs. What’s Really Behind Schools’ Staffing Shortages?

By Mark Lieberman — September 20, 2021 | Corrected: September 21, 2021 10 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this article misstated the number of job openings this summer in public education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 446,000 public education jobs were open in June, and 460,000 in July.

School districts are confronting a crisis this year that shows little sign of abating: crucial job openings aren’t getting filled.

A Colorado school district has fewer than a quarter of its normal supply of cafeteria workers. Efforts to directly hire social workers in New York City schools are leading to shortages among mental health nonprofits that provide in-school services. Some schools in Virginia have shifted to virtual learning after administrators couldn’t find enough substitutes to cover for teachers who had been exposed to COVID-19.

All across the country, school districts are posting signs in town and notices on social media with humble but urgent requests for more school bus drivers. The mayor of Chicago asked the private rideshare companies Uber and Lyft to fill school transportation gaps. Massachusetts officials called in the National Guard to shuttle students after bus driver shortages threatened to upend the start of the school year.

As anecdotes pile up, wide-ranging data on staff shortages in schools remain elusive. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly tracking of job openings in public education offers a clue, though: More than 446,000 jobs were open in June, and 460,000 in July, compared with less than half those figures at the same point last year. (The data include both K-12 and higher education jobs, but K-12 typically makes up roughly three-quarters of the overall numbers.)

Interviews with economists, administrators, and employees reveal a complex array of factors causing the school hiring headaches: Fears over health and safety, frustrations over longstanding pay gaps and inequities, and political disagreements over masks and vaccines. Some of these shortages are far more severe than usual, while others existed long before the pandemic.

The essential workers in schools

For district leaders, staffing difficulties add another layer of chaos to the already challenging task of keeping schools running, especially during a pandemic.

What often gets overlooked, though, is the impact the workers who fill these positions have on students and their learning experiences.

Daisy Bennett, 51, works 7:30 to 11 a.m. each school day at Brea Olinda High School in Orange County, Calif., offering one-on-one help to students who need extra support in the classroom. She gets paid $22.92 an hour.

Then she drives 15 minutes to El Dorado High School in the Placentia Yorba Linda school district, where she immediately starts another three-and-a-half-hour shift doing similar work. For that job, she gets paid $21.22 an hour.

She sees firsthand the toll that school staff volatility takes on students. When longtime bus drivers retire or decide they don’t want to continue working in sub-optimal conditions, students lose out on starting each morning with a friendly, familiar face. When assistants for students with disabilities have to leave in the middle of the day, the students they serve lose the stability of an aide who knows their schedule and emotions inside and out.

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group of diverse people fading away
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“The next person comes in, you don’t have any overlap time, you can’t discuss what I’ve observed,” Bennett said. “That truly affects our students.”

Bennett, like many of her colleagues, would prefer to have one full-time job in a single location. But the two school districts that employ her maintain paraprofessionals as part-time employees in part because their health insurance costs are steep.

The Brea Olinda district recently promoted 40 paraprofessionals to six-hour days, making them eligible for health insurance, said Brinda Leon, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. But the district’s budget limitations and steep competition with higher-paying private sector jobs are among the factors that limit the ability to more widely offer robust benefits, she wrote in an email to Education Week.

At times in the past, Bennett has worked far more than her allotted weekly hours at a single district. But more recently, she realized that because she wasn’t getting paid for those additional hours, she wasn’t getting retirement benefits for them either, so it’s better to work two permanent jobs part-time, she said.

Daisy Bennett, a paraprofessional who works at two schools in Orange County, Calif., poses on the campus of Brea Olinda High School in Brea, Calif. on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

Why does Bennett keep going after more than two decades working K-12 jobs like these, despite the exhaustion she and colleagues routinely endure?

“I’m energized by working with the students,” she said. “Even thinking about going somewhere else, it depresses me.”

The bus driver shortage hits hard

There’s little doubt the pandemic has punctured the persistent enthusiasm for serving students that keeps many school employees going even in tough conditions.

Teachers make up less than half of the K-12 workforce, which includes more than 6 million people. The next largest group, instructional aides, includes more than 2 million workers nationwide. Roughly a quarter of the K-12 system’s budget goes toward non-teaching staff.

On an individual basis, though, many school workers are compensated at far lower rates than teachers and administrators. The median annual pay for K-12 teaching assistants in May 2020 was $28,900, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. School bus drivers make on average between $15 and $17 an hour, according to 2018 data from BLS. Those numbers are well below living wages across the United States, especially for workers with children.

The labor pool for bus drivers, substitute teachers, and others who contribute to schools on a part-time or irregular basis, tends to be older, and often includes people who see working at a school as a means for supplementary income. Those jobs often pay only a fraction of what teachers receive, sometimes lack union representation, and rarely come with assurance of employment beyond the current school year.

As demand for bus drivers grows with the return of fully open school buildings, the prospect of returning to a bus full of unvaccinated kids might seem untenable to people at high risk of severe disease from COVID-19.

This time last year, “there was excess supply. There was a story of paying bus drivers to drive empty buses,” said Chad Aldeman, policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “Now we’re in a totally opposite world where every district is trying to open, the country is trying to open. There’s just a massive competition now for workers.”

Every district is trying to open, the country is trying to open. There’s just a massive competition now for workers.

On top of those factors, school districts that weren’t open for full in-person instruction at times last school year got behind on their normal recruiting schedule for bus drivers, said Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association. Now that they’re trying to catch up, they’re finding that prospective drivers aren’t able to get the necessary licenses and certifications quickly enough to be ready for the first day of school.

Roughly half of school districts that answered a recent survey from the NSTA categorized their bus driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.” Approximately two-thirds said bus driver shortages were their number one problem at the moment.

In some cases, requirements for masks and vaccinations in some places, and restrictions on those requirements in others, might be keeping some people from returning to jobs they once had, or from signing up to fill gaps.

‘Dramatically underpaid and undercompensated’

COVID-specific policies alone don’t explain the full story, though.

“When I was a principal, we had tremendous turnover among our bus drivers and the folks who staffed our cafeterias,” said Stefan Lallinger, a former teacher and administrator at a charter school in Louisiana who now serves as fellow and director of the Century Foundation’s Bridges Collaborative, which advocates for school integration and other progressive policies.

“Even before the pandemic, whether we talk about bus drivers, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, [they] were dramatically underpaid and undercompensated for the work that they did,” he said. “By and large, people in the general population have often taken these positions for granted.”

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Some school district leaders, business owners, and political pundits have speculated that unusually generous pandemic unemployment benefits from state and federal governments have driven many workers out of the labor market. But there’s little evidence to back up this claim.

When 25 Republican-led states began trimming unemployment benefits this summer, they didn’t see a surge in hiring or major drop in the unemployment rate, according to an August working paper, not yet published or peer reviewed, from researchers at Columbia University, Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Toronto.

“People’s heads are basically exploding because workers had a little bit of bargaining power,” said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley. “A healthy capitalist economy would have that as a facet all the time.”

Unemployment benefits typically don’t go to people who voluntarily chose to leave a job and aren’t actively looking for new work. School employees also typically aren’t eligible during scheduled breaks in school operations.

People’s heads are basically exploding because workers had a little bit of bargaining power. A healthy capitalist economy would have that as a facet all the time.

The theory about government benefits also fails to account for the reality that for many high-poverty districts in rural areas finding enough employees with specialized expertise and training is a perpetual challenge, said Henry Tran, an associate professor of educational leadership and policies at the University of South Carolina.

“Oftentimes, they’ll hire somebody, get somebody in, that person accrues a few years of experience, then they leave for a wealthier district,” Tran said.

The pandemic, and the economic instability that’s come with it, has squeezed even districts that don’t typically experience those problems on a large scale. It’s also thrown a spotlight on aspects of the school workforce that often get left out of mainstream conversations about employment issues.

“You always hear about teacher shortages, teachers should be paid more,” Tran said. “How often do you hear that about the janitors, the classified staff?”

How schools are trying to fill the gaps

School leaders aren’t likely to see a swift end to these problems, particularly without funding and support that matches the scale of their rapidly evolving needs during the still-raging pandemic.

But there’s more they can be doing to listen to the needs of the workers who keep schools running, said Citlali Soto, a safety and security officer at Alcott College Prep High School in Chicago. Soto serves as a steward for SEIU Local 73, the union that includes the district’s custodial workers.

In recent weeks, Soto has watched as untrained substitute custodians have struggled to fill the gap left by a janitor who went on vacation for a week and a half. Other custodians had to double their workloads to fill the gaps, she said.

She’s hoping school board members will consider the possibility of returning to last year’s hybrid schedule, which gave custodians Wednesdays to fully sanitize the building while all students were learning remotely. Few districts currently appear likely to make that shift.

“The people on the ground know the best thing for their building,” Soto said. “They know what’s best out there for what the situation is.”

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School buses remain parked in a storage area due to COVID-related school closures earlier this year in Zelienople, Pa.
School buses remain parked in a storage area due to COVID-related school closures earlier this year in Zelienople, Pa.
Keith Srakocic/AP

Districts and states are trying to find creative ways to respond to the needs of their current and prospective employees—hosting job fairs, dangling bonuses, hiring internationally.

This week, the governor of New York announced new steps to tackle the bus driver shortage, including opening new testing sites for commercial drivers trying to get their licenses, and reaching out to law enforcement, military, and fire departments to try to find already-qualified drivers who can pitch in.

Steve Paramore, the assistant superintendent for operations and human resources for the Ashland school district in Ohio, said his team is trying to identify resources to offer health benefits to bus drivers without requiring them to take a midday job on top of their responsibilities on the road.

“There is not an abundance of individuals that are willing to take on the tall task of driving 60 to 80 kids on a bus to and from school with the fear of contracting the virus or not looking forward to dealing with the different behaviors and situations that may arise with students on a bus,” Paramore said.

School districts are in a tough spot as they compete with other employers that may have more resources to provide robust benefits.

Bennett, the paraprofessional in California, said she recently considered a job with the U.S. Postal Service that required no experience, offered on-the-job training, and included paid holidays.

“That’s incentive. They’re drawing people to apply,” she said. “There needs to be incentive besides the fact that everybody who I know are fantastic and dedicated employees.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2021 edition of Education Week as What’s Really Behind Schools’ Staffing Shortages?

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