Recruitment & Retention

‘No Respect and No Support': K-12 Workers Explain Why Schools Struggle With Staffing

By Mark Lieberman — September 24, 2021 5 min read
A "Bus Drivers Wanted" sign is shown Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Sandy, Utah. A shortage of bus drivers is complicating the start of a new school year already facing a surge in COVID-19 cases and conflicts over whether masks should be required in school buildings.
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Staff shortages are top of mind for educators this year, as schools search far and wide for bus drivers, substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, instructional aides, cafeteria workers, and other employees to help make the return to fully in-person school as smooth as possible.

On Monday night, Education Week published my article titled “No Bus Drivers, Custodians, or Subs. What’s Really Behind Schools’ Staffing Shortages?” It attracted a dizzying response from readers, with hundreds weighing in on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. They shared stories of frustration and fatigue: with the mechanics of the hiring process; with the chronic lack of pay and robust benefits for back-breaking work; with the dearth of affordable child-care options that would allow more parents to consider returning to work.

Some expressed concern and anger about still-developing federal requirements for school employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Others said the potential for COVID-19 infection on the job has kept them home.

The comments paint a picture of the diverse and interlocking reasons why schools are struggling to hire workers. They challenge conventional wisdom that people simply are too lazy to work, or that offering more money alone will entice people back to workplaces they consider unpleasant or dangerous.

A few key themes emerged:

Low pay is bad enough, but paltry benefits can be even more detrimental

Several people said the lack of benefits like health insurance and retirement contributions are more frustrating than the low pay rates—particularly because those benefits have worsened over time.

“Years ago, a bus driver got full retirement and medical benefits at no cost to them, that’s what brought them in,” one commenter wrote. “Now we get retirement that we have to pay for and Medical that costs almost as much as it does on Marketplace. If they just put the benefits back, the pay would be fine. I pay over 70% of my gross pay for medical and retirement.”

Child care appears to be a major obstacle for many people who might otherwise take jobs in schools

For many commenters, the steep cost of finding people to watch children during the school day outweighs the potential value of taking one of these jobs. This issue is of particular concern as COVID-19 surges continue to pop up across the country.

One parent said she wants a job at a school, but isn’t sure she’d be able to take time off if her young, unvaccinated children get exposed to COVID-19 and have to quarantine. “I am wanting to work part time, but I can’t tell an employer after only a couple weeks on the job my 3rd grader’s required to quarantine so I’ll be out for two weeks at home,” the commenter wrote.

President Joe Biden is proposing $25 billion for the construction of new child-care facilities and an extension of the pandemic-era Child Tax Credit for all families regardless of income. But it remains unclear whether Congress will approve a spending package that includes those items.

Even if the pay and benefits are manageable, the feelings of disrespect and exhaustion often aren’t

Workers in a variety of positions shared that they feel abandoned by their school leaders and supervisors, and that students and parents can often be rude or harsh. The work itself can be back-breaking and thankless.

“I was a custodian and I worked almost the whole time the school was shut down!!! No respect and no support from the higher ups and abuse from the leader,” one person wrote.

“My son went through paperwork & background check - then worked from 6am-3 in sweltering hot buildings, scrubbing and lifting and moving furniture - was asked to use his own truck to fill and move junk - for $10 an hour - while he could have went and worked fast food for $15 an hour,” wrote another commenter.

One custodian said they’re one of only five people in their position for an entire district.

“With the COVID the amount of cleaning required of us is doubled and I’m at work 10 hours a day, only paid for 8, and sometimes work late and unpaid to finish so the kids can learn in a clean environment and have a reduced chance for Covid, and all for $9 [an hour].”

A bus driver wrote that “we’re looked at as we’re nothing” despite being the first person a child sees when they start their day and the last person they see before being home.

Several teachers said they think other school employees deserve better. “I’ve had SO many absences in my classes due to lack of bus drivers in my district,” one LinkedIn commenter wrote. “They deserve a living wage with benefits and a retirement plan!”

Administrative hurdles are slowing down the hiring process and keeping workers from jumping in

School personnel offices are stretched thin, and district bureaucracies can be difficult for employees to navigate. One person with a part-time permanent role wrote that they still haven’t received a school ID card nearly a month into the school year. “Now when I hear of ‘desperate need’ I laugh and say they probably have 50 people that are in the process [of] looking for a job while the district takes months to hire,” the commenter wrote.

Requirements for some jobs can be intimidating.

“I signed up to be a bus driver. The requirements were staggering,” one person wrote. “There are over 100 safety checks one must do before going out in the morning. That’s excellent for our kids’ safety so I’m not begrudging that. But if you did one thing out of order, even if you went back to it, you’re gone. It wasn’t worth $15 an hour.”

In some cases it costs money to even apply, or keep a job once you have it: “In CA it costs $102 to renew a substitute teaching permit every year. An unnecessary barrier to entry for what is basically a minimum wage job.”

In Missouri, another person wrote, a background check and registration to apply for a substitute teaching position costs $100. “Why would anybody pay $100 for a maybe?”

Pandemic restrictions, or lack thereof, are driving some workers away

Some commenters expressed frustration at the prospect of vaccine mandates for school staff, or suggested they’ve heard that some people are quitting jobs or declining to apply for them because of vaccine requirements. (For more on districts’ and governments’ vaccine policies, check out Education Week’s interactive tracker.)

Others said their district is no longer requiring masks, so they no longer feel safe being among unvaccinated children and adults while on the job.

“The whole system is a mess and it isn’t worth $80 a day to risk getting sick,” one person said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as ‘No Respect and No Support’: K-12 Workers Explain Why Schools Struggle With Staffing

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