Recruitment & Retention

Staff Shortages in Schools Are Here to Stay. Here’s Why

By Mark Lieberman — August 18, 2023 6 min read
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More than three years after the pandemic scrambled the K-12 education system, many school districts continue to struggle to find qualified employees to fill key positions, with no obvious solutions in sight.

The Jefferson County district in Kentucky made national headlines last week when a shortage of school bus drivers prompted route changes that left students stranded on the road for hours. The Lincoln district in Nebraska was fully staffed this week as the school year began, but lacks the usual contingent of backup employees who can step in when some people inevitably leave midway through the year. And school districts in many states are short on paraprofessionals and special education practitioners.

Administrators and hiring professionals in school districts have resigned themselves to the persistence of these challenges.

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A line of yellow buses passes through a parking lot.
Jefferson County Public Schools school buses makes their way through the Detrick Bus Compound on the first day of school on Aug. 9, 2023, in Louisville, Ky. Kentucky’s largest school system called off six days of school after a disastrous overhaul of the transportation system that left some children on buses until almost 10 p.m. on opening day.
Jeff Faughender/Courier Journal via AP

“It’s almost the thing you don’t talk about because everyone knows,” said David Law, superintendent of the 11,000-student Minnetonka district in Minnesota. “It’s sort of like saying it’s hot in Arizona.”

The blame for staff shortages falls to a variety of factors.

Hiring in general is a challenge for many employers right now, as the broader labor market is tight and unemployment is low. Districts that are choosing to invest in more people rather than higher compensation for existing employees may face a bigger challenge finding viable candidates, said Paul Bruno, assistant professor of education policy, organization, and leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Some district leaders cite a pipeline issue: Education professions have become less appealing, which causes fewer people to enter degree programs for teaching and other education roles and puts more stress on the people who currently have those jobs.

“When you go to do a job that requires five people and you’ve only hired three, it’s a harder job than it would be when it’s fully staffed, which means people coming in are less likely to stay,” Law said.

Many workers reason they can make more money and have more flexible hours and robust benefits working for private employers. Some teachers are taking jobs that allow them to be fully remote, while bus drivers and nutrition staff are eyeing positions with local factories and corporations like Amazon and Walmart.

“If we are not able to retain people, we are hiring through the front door and they are leaving out the back door,” said Vann Price, associate superintendent for human resources at the 41,000-student Lincoln, Neb., district.

Competition for workers also plays out between districts. In New Jersey, districts have seen a significant increase in teachers who forgo their tenured position in one district in favor of a job in another school system that’s closer to home or offers higher pay, said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools in New Jersey.

It’s almost the thing you don’t talk about because everyone knows. It’s sort of like saying it’s hot in Arizona.

Educators have become more family-minded since the pandemic began, prompting them to prioritize their personal lives in deciding where to work, according to Ginsburg.

“It used to be almost unheard of for tenured teachers to take another job,” she said.

Staff shortages vary in severity but still hurt for many educators

Exactly how severe are staff shortages? No one knows for sure. Data on hiring in schools often aren’t available in real time, or in enough detail to illustrate positions where shortages are most acute, Bruno said.

Data can also be misleading about the breadth of shortages, Bruno said. A large number of open positions in a big school district could equate to a very low percentage of the district’s payroll.

With a dearth of hard evidence, some media coverage of staff shortages might inflame fears about the conditions in school buildings, Bruno said.

“I’m not sure that I would look at headlines about supposedly catastrophic school staffing shortages, and think that schools are places I’d want to work,” he said.

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Students at Wayzata High School in Minnesota serve meals to their peers on June 6, 2023, as part of a program the school started that employs students to offset staffing shortages.
Students at Wayzata High School in Minnesota serve meals to their peers on June 6, 2023, as part of a program the school started that employs students to offset staffing shortages.
Courtesy of Tyler Shepard

But regardless of the scope of staff shortages, they still affect the daily lives of many educators.

The staff shortage phenomenon also isn’t just about open positions, but about the availability of qualified personnel.

Angela Nottingham, who teaches 7th-grade social studies at Huntington Middle School in Huntington, W.Va., said it’s become increasingly common for her school to hire people certified to teach one subject and then shift them to another because there’s no one else to take the role.

This isn’t always a bad thing. One of her colleagues started as a physical education teacher and now, according to Nottingham, excels at teaching math.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes teachers who lack the proper certifications struggle on the job and need more help from their already-busy colleagues.

“I’ve met many people who are math majors. They come into the classroom and they’re like, ‘I don’t know anything about this.’” Nottingham and her fellow experienced colleagues then end up having to fill the gaps, she said.

Some positions in schools are particularly challenging to staff appropriately.

The federal government last year identified special education as the teaching area with the largest share of unfilled positions. In Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education recently scolded schools for keeping unlicensed special education staff members for too long.

Law, the Minnetonka district superintendent, recently attended an event with four other Minnesota superintendents. Their five districts collectively need 70 more special education teachers than they have.

Law said his wife, an assistant principal, consistently fails to attract a single applicant when she posts special education openings. “There are not 70, or even seven, special ed. teachers in the state who are unemployed,” he said.

What can be done?

Schools can’t solve the broader workforce problems they’re experiencing on their own. But they do have the power to improve their individual staffing situations and advocate for state policies that would help.

Eliminating residency requirements and other barriers to teaching would be a big help in New Jersey, Ginsburg said. Right now, educators who live in New York and Pennsylvania can’t teach there by law, but New Jersey educators can teach in Pennsylvania. States should also do more to help aspiring teachers cover fees for licensing, testing, and other job requirements, she said.

In Nebraska, the Lincoln district partnered with the local university to construct an abbreviated degree program for paraprofessionals to become teachers while working for the district. Fourteen paraprofessionals are currently taking part, Price said.

For bus drivers, districts are getting creative with offering more attractive work schedules, altering routes to reduce the need for as many drivers, promoting bus alternatives, and periodically interviewing drivers to ensure the district is meeting their needs.

Price believes part of the solution lies with conferring greater appreciation to staff members who are making a difference in classrooms.

“Sometimes we look at an issue and we say, ‘oh there’s a problem.’ But we have so many amazing young people that are choosing to teach, and really going in and doing wonderful things for the students,” Price said. “I don’t want us to lose focus.”

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student entering empty classroom with no teacher
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Recruitment & Retention 5 Ways Districts Are Filling Teacher Vacancies
Madeline Will, August 15, 2023
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A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as Staff Shortages in Schools Are Here to Stay. Here’s Why

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