Recruitment & Retention From Our Research Center

The School Staffing Crisis Won’t End Any Time Soon

By Mark Lieberman — December 09, 2021 6 min read
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Staffing shortages that have been crushing schools for months—with frequent absences and unfilled openings for teachers, instructional aides, bus drivers, custodians, substitutes and more—are getting worse, not better, new survey results show.

With winter break approaching rapidly, and uncertainty around COVID persisting nearly two years after the pandemic began, these problems appear likely to remain a fixture of K-12 education for the foreseeable future, district leaders and school workers say.

Slightly more than half of 497 principals and district leaders who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey between Nov. 17 and Dec. 1 said staff shortages in their district are getting worse compared with the start of the school year. Another 37 percent said the shortage challenges have remained the same since the school year began.

“Educators are beyond tired and finding it difficult to navigate the daily struggle of not having enough staff and substitutes to adequately cover buildings on a daily basis,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the Slate Valley district in Vermont.

Three of the district’s 200 teachers have resigned in the past two weeks, either taking jobs in higher-paying districts in nearby New York, or leaving education altogether, Olsen-Farrell said.

Administrators are now looking into hiring teachers from outside the country, but securing work visas “is a cumbersome process,” she said. In the meantime, Olsen-Farrell has warned parents in recent weeks that the district might have to shut down in-person learning at some point if staffing nightmares persist.

Fourteen percent of principals and district leaders who answered the survey said their school or district has shut down in-person instruction at least once this school year.

The most common culprits are COVID exposures and outbreaks among students or staff, according to the survey. More than half of principals and district leaders who had to close schools did so because COVID exposures and quarantines led to staff shortages, according to the survey.

At the 25-student Fort Ransom Elementary in rural North Dakota, an aide who was hired this school year quit after a month because she and her elderly mother both contracted COVID-19, said Steven Johnson, who is consulting for the one-school district after recently retiring as its superintendent.

“I do not know when this will end,” Johnson said.

School districts are snatching up workers from neighboring districts

Longstanding hiring challenges and unprecedented pandemic pressures have converged this year to create a perfect storm of challenges for districts trying to restore K-12 schooling to a sense of normalcy.

Students are enduring long wait times for school buses, fewer options for school-provided meals, disjointed classroom instruction, and inadequate specialized services as employees in the building scramble to fill numerous roles beyond their typical duties.

According to preliminary data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings in state and local education—a category made up of K-12 schools and other education positions—ticked up from 261,000 to 299,000 between September and October. Both figures exceed the comparable figure from last fall, when 228,000 jobs in state and local education were open. The number of hires also increased during the same period, from 127,000 to 164,000, according to the BLS data.

Competition among school districts for qualified employees is fierce. At the 1,700-student Mountain Empire district in Southern California, a science teacher, an assistant principal, and a high school principal have all left for other districts in recent months.

“None of them were actively looking for positions,” said Superintendent Patrick Keeley. All of them were contacted directly by larger school districts, he said.

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A sign advertises for school bus drivers outside Norris Middle School in Omaha, Neb., on July 29, 2020.
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Three weeks into the hiring process for replacing the principal who quit, no applicants have emerged.

“We are located within a 35-minute drive from San Diego, so it’s not like we are a hard to reach location,” Keeley said.

Only 6 percent of principals and district leaders in the recent EdWeek Research Center survey said they’re dealing with fewer issues around staff shortages than they were at the beginning of the school year, even though that’s the typical trajectory for K-12 hiring.

Employees expect more compensation for their demanding jobs

Competitive pressures in the labor market have led many school districts to raise wages this year. Fifty-two percent of principals and district leaders said they’re using higher pay rates to lure workers away from more lucrative jobs at big corporations.

School employees across the country also are sounding the alarm about steadily worsening working conditions they believe they can’t endure much longer.

School bus drivers in at least 12 states have withheld their labor through a strike or sick-out this school year, according to an Education Week analysis of local media reports. Drivers are typically looking for better pay, more-robust benefits, and more support dealing with the chaotic behavioral challenges that can arise on a bus full of rowdy children.

Among principals and district leaders who say they’re raising wages, slightly more than one-fifth say they’ve increased wages by more than 10 percent.

The Wake County school board in North Carolina this week approved raises of up to 40 percent for its lowest-paid workers. The minimum salary for school support staff will now be $15 an hour. Instructional assistants will make $16.20 an hour, up from $11.80, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

The vote to increase salaries came amid protest from the Wake County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, which advocated for a minimum wage of $17 an hour.

The salary increases will last through the end of the current school year. The district will need to scrounge up a new funding source to extend them past that, according to the news report.

Schools are looking to all kinds of funding sources to fatten the paychecks of the employees they’re trying desperately to recruit and retain.

The most common approach, according to the survey results, is finding money in the district’s existing budget. A third of principals and district leaders surveyed who say they’re raising wages this year are using federal funds to fuel those increases. Another 26 percent expect state revenue increases to make up the difference.

Slightly more than one-fifth say they’re not sure yet how they’re going to pay for wage increases.

Staff shortages create other kinds of funding pressures as well. North Carolina districts have hired custodian contractors to fill gaps among their in-house cleaning staff, according to Tony Messer, chief financial officer of Chatham County Schools and president of the North Carolina Association of School Business Officials.

“The increase in cost for contracted services can range from 10 to 25 percent,” Messer said. “Districts are paying for this increase from lapsed salaries from vacant positions and a combination of cutting back on programs and using (savings).”

Staff shortages affect students’ daily experiences as well as their long-term relationship with school, said Keeley, the Mountain Empire superintendent.

“If students are seeing constant turnover in their schools, it creates barriers to forming relationships as they begin to see the adults in their schools as temporary in their lives and may unconsciously put up barriers which can impede learning,” Keeley said. “And unfortunately, right now, there is a lot of uncertainty out there.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as The School Staffing Crisis Won’t End Any Time Soon

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