Special Report
Recruitment & Retention

How School Staffing Shortages Are Hurting Students

By Mark Lieberman — June 15, 2022 11 min read
Students board buses at Frances Slocum Elementary School in Marion, Ind., after classes on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. Marion Community Schools is looking for more bus drivers.
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The past academic year was a rough one for school transportation in Monroe County, Indiana.

Keri Miksza’s daughter, an 8th-grader, was regularly arriving 15 minutes late for her first-period math class during the first part of this school year. She could drive to the middle school by car in 10 minutes, but her daughter regularly spent 45 minutes to an hour each way on a bus so crowded that many students had to stand.

“I never thought to ask, ‘Hey, how crowded is your school bus?’” said Miksza, who is the chair of the Indiana Coalition of Public Education for Monroe County. “You just assume everybody has a seat.”

Drivers in the district doubled back two or three times each day to cover bus routes. Parents puzzled over when, or whether, buses would pick up their children. Substitute drivers squinted at handwritten descriptions of routes they had never traveled.

In a single month, on average, 32 buses were late at least once to their destination, and 10 of those were late more than seven times, a consulting firm hired last fall by the district found. The average late bus was four to seven minutes behind schedule. And the students most likely to be late? Students from low-income households—the ones whose parents didn’t have another way to get them to school.

It wasn’t hard to understand the origins of these problems. The district typically employs 120 bus drivers to transport roughly 9,000 students to its 21 buildings daily. This past year, only 80 of those staff positions were filled.

“We looked at, can we live with what we have?” said Adam Terwilliger, the district’s assistant director of business operations. “It became a matter of, it’d be educational malpractice.”

The plight of Terwilliger’s district likely rings true for districts large and small in all 50 states.

When schools lack adequate staffing, students who need the most support suffer most. Students with disabilities and English-language learners lose out on or have less access to specialized services. Students from poor families, and rural students who live far from their school building, lose convenient free transportation and crucial learning time in school. And all students who need extra academic help miss out on instruction when teachers and support personnel are stressed, demoralized, and absent.

Studies show that students learn more when their teachers are less frequently absent; when the ratio of nurses to students is lower; and, particularly for students of color and students in high-poverty schools, when teaching assistants are present.

Staff shortages in one area have ripple effects elsewhere. When buses can’t run on schedule, teachers fret about the safety of their students finding other means to get home. When substitute teachers aren’t on deck, schools beset by COVID outbreaks have no choice but to shift to remote learning, trim school hours, or cut extracurricular activities. When paraprofessionals are hard to come by, teachers have to fill the gaps while juggling their regular duties.

Plus, “You don’t attract your best, most competent people with poverty wages,” said Joanna Miller, a school bus driver in Kalamazoo, Mich., who serves as president of the Kalamazoo Support Professionals union.

It’s always been challenging for schools to hire enough qualified teachers, instructional aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards, and the other staff members who keep a school day humming. But for many school and district administrators, those challenges have never been more daunting.

Shortages of qualified teachers regularly generate headlines and draw comments from politicians, as during a recent congressional hearing on those subjects. But the discussions often leave out the millions of other people in the K-12 workforce who are critical to the smooth functioning of schools—and optimal learning for students.

That workforce is frustrated, too. Three-quarters of paraprofessionals, school transportation workers, and other classified school employees who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey in early May said staff shortages are at least a medium-sized problem in their district. Nearly 2 in 5 said staffing is a major problem. Fourteen percent said it’s a crisis.

These problems show few signs of slowing down. Slightly more than a quarter of surveyed paraprofessionals and school transportation workers said they’re likely to leave the K-12 profession in the next year. Of those, 70 percent said pay was a major reason.

Raising wages isn’t enough

Even after boosting wages and dangling benefits, districts that never struggled to hire before are finding a dearth of candidates for open positions. Districts that perennially fall short of adequate staffing levels are feeling the stress more than ever. These problems haven’t subsided even as in-person schooling returned.

The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, which covers four school districts in southeastern Vermont, used to regularly get 50 applicants for an open teaching position. Now, “We’re doing a happy dance when you see something break double digits,” said Katie Ahern, the supervisory union’s director of student support services.

Candidates for special education assistants are almost impossible to find, she said.

Some of the obvious solutions to these problems are proving insufficient.

The EdWeek Research Center survey asked all respondents to list a percentage raise they could get that would make them much more likely to stay in their current job. The average answer was 20 percent. Respondents indicated a one-time bonus of $2,219 per year would make them much more likely to stay.

Most districts struggle to approach even a fraction of that increase. District leaders in Denver recently proposed increasing the minimum wage for school employees from $15 to $20 over three years—a far cry from staff unions’ request for a $33 minimum and annual 5 percent cost-of-living increases. Paraprofessionals in Madison, Wis., recently walked out of work to push for a 5 percent pay increase, but the district so far has only agreed to raise wages by 2 percent.

Wages and benefits make up 80 percent to 90 percent of most districts’ annual operating budgets. Compensation can only increase as much as available local, state, and federal funding will allow. Budget pressures from declining enrollment and surging inflation are shrinking opportunities for growing districts’ revenue. Short-term pandemic relief aid will expire in two years.

In Monroe County, the district’s starting salaries for bus drivers were already higher than in many other nearby districts.

“It’s like a submarine underwater and you’ve got four doors open,” Terwilliger said. “You increase pay—that closes one of the doors, but water just rushes faster through the others that aren’t addressed,” like outdated technology, route complexities, and benefits.

Districts struggle to recruit in areas where housing is scarce

Another major challenge for recruitment is a nationwide deficit of affordable housing.

The Chinle school district on the Navajo reservation in northeast Arizona is short 17 bus drivers, 24 teachers out of roughly 250, and two principals.

Housing is a major culprit in the highly rural area, where some of the district’s 3,200 students regularly commute an hour and a half one way to get to school. Quincy Natay, the district’s superintendent, said he’s seen several instances where the district hires someone new, they arrive on a Friday afternoon in a U-Haul van, and by Monday, they’ve changed their minds and left.

“You’re living right next door to where you work,” Natay said. “If it’s not nice, that can be a distraction.”

The district owns 3,800 housing units, but they haven’t been updated in nearly 30 years, and they’re starting to fall apart. The district receives federal funds through the Impact Aid program to offset the lack of revenue from property taxes, but housing doesn’t qualify for construction grants through that program, Natay said.

To find drivers, Natay’s team has tried everything: raising wages, fully subsidizing employees’ health insurance, offering sign-on bonuses and retention stipends, and paying for new drivers’ license applications.

But no matter what they do, the reality doesn’t change. Some drivers defect to more-specialized jobs in the construction industry, which pays better. Others move off the reservation, or find employers who take less money out of paychecks for retirement funds.

The district gets transportation funding from the state per mile traveled. With far fewer miles traveled this year because of driver shortages and some students learning virtually, Natay will have fewer funds to spend on maintenance, which is crucial in a district where buses travel on poorly maintained or unpaved roads they weren’t designed for.

“The work seems to never end,” Natay said.

Jobs in schools are a tough sell

The path to improving schools’ staffing woes is steep.

These jobs are hardly getting easier. COVID continues to spread and shows no signs of disappearing. Millions of students have lost instructional time and large numbers have experienced acute mental health challenges that may take years to address. High-profile school shootings, while statistically rare, raise fears for some educators about their safety. Political rancor is escalating tensions in many communities, and those tensions often spill over onto administrators, teachers, and school staff just trying to help students succeed.

Greg Tucker, an English teacher at Pajaro Valley High School in Watsonville, Calif., always thought he would retire several years after the minimum age of 55. Now, at 51, he’s struggling to imagine staying longer than he has to.

The district, home to a major hub of agricultural production, is seeing particularly sharp staffing challenges in its elementary and middle schools, Tucker said. Soaring housing costs in the San Francisco Bay area are straining families and educators alike.

The time Tucker spends in his regular classroom remains fulfilling. But he frequently gives up his preparation period to cover for another class that has lacked a regular teacher all year. That means he has to scramble at home to catch up on grading or plan future lessons.

When he fills in for a class with no permanent teacher, he feels like it’s an uphill battle to do his job well.

“In a year after the pandemic when kids are trying to get to a place where they’re re-acclimating themselves with structure and education and their own abilities, to not have a constant presence there guiding them makes them feel hopeless,” Tucker said.

What to do when systemic solutions haven’t appeared

If staff shortages are here to stay, and without a systemic solution in sight, districts will need to get creative.

In Indiana’s Monroe County, middle and high schools currently start at 8 a.m., and elementary schools start at 9 a.m. Starting next year, the district’s buses will shift from a “two-tiered” system, with two start times across the district, to a “four-tiered” system, in which schools will start at four different times to allow drivers more breathing room to traverse the area.

High schools will run from 7:45 a.m. to 2:40 p.m., middle schools from 8:10 a.m. to 3:05 p.m., some elementaries from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., and the rest from 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Consultants recommended an even larger spread of school start times to ease transportation issues. But before making these changes, the district surveyed nearly 2,800 families and found that 82 percent were opposed to start times changing by an hour. Only half of respondents said they’d support the smallest possible start-time change of 15 minutes, according to the survey data.

Drivers will get a $2 an hour increase in pay, and they could get an extra 25 cents if the district’s voters pass an operating referendum this fall. New tablets on each bus will help drivers navigate their routes with more clarity.

The district will also expand before and after-school care offerings to help families who might be inconvenienced by the changing schedule.

Some families still have trepidations about the new start times, said Miksza, the parent of an 8th grader. Parents of multiple kids attending different schools, or of kids who participate in early-morning group activities like band that take place at other school buildings, are worried how those logistics will change. Some parents would prefer elementary schools start earlier than high school—but asking elementary school students to traipse to the bus in the dark could be a non-starter, Miksza said.

“I don’t envy the school district trying to figure this out,” Miksza said. “You feel like there’s no best way, but we have to find a better way.”

Some drivers are also worried about a feature of the tablets that will tell them which roads to take for the most efficient route to students.

Terwilliger knows the new approach won’t be perfect. But he’s hoping it will create a better experience for current students and staff, and eliminate the need for more hiring that doesn’t appear possible.

“We’re planning on a strategy that with more feedback will only get better,” he said.

Educators are persevering under difficult circumstances for the sake of their students.

Joanna Miller, the driver from Kalamazoo, said students who rode her bus on a 3rd-grade field trip have recognized her on the street years later. She loves building relationships with students, and wants to keep doing it.

“We’re here because it fulfills us, professionally and emotionally,” Miller said. “We should not have to struggle to take care of ourselves and our families to do this.”

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.

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