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School staffing shortages are plaguing districts from coast to coast. Classes have been canceled, principals are picking up mops and brooms to fill in for other positions, and some students have even stepped up to fill in vacant jobs following the coronavirus.
“The reality is that these districts just don’t feel they have any other options than canceling school for the day. This should serve as a wakeup call that we need to do better by our students and our public schools,” Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehler said last week, according to USA Today.
“There’s an overwhelming sense of exhaustion,” she added.
Some Denver area schools already switched to temporary remote learning to cope with the shortages, and were among other schools across the U.S. that canceled classes on Friday to extend the observance of Veterans Day to a four-day weekend.
The issue isn’t an isolated one. Schools in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington state, Maryland and Colorado have all canceled classes in recent days because of staffing shortages.
Empty classroom or lecture hall
In Seattle, more than 600 teachers requested the Friday after Veterans Day off, forcing schools to cancel classes. The district attributed the influx of substitute teacher requests to the “the fatigue that educators and students are experiencing, locally and nationwide, 11 weeks into the return to in-class learning.”
The shortages of teachers have left some parents outraged, while other parents have put their foot down on canceling classes.
“They care about themselves more than they care about the kids,” one anonymous Pennsylvania parent told ABC 6 of teachers.
San Diego Unified School District planned to give students the day off on Friday for a mental health day amid staffing shortages but backed off the plan after pushback from parents.
A "closed" sign in front of a public elementary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan in March 2020. Michigan closed all schools in an effort to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It would have been great if it would have been on the calendar from the beginning. The parents I talked to all felt like ‘here we go again’ with just that regular stress of trying to manage childcare,” parent Jen Boynton told CBS 8.
Much of the shortages are attributed to fatigue following lockdowns in 2020 and teachers heading back to classrooms this year where they face issues of learning loss and mental health issues with students. The country has also seen large protests from teachers over various state and city vaccine mandates.
Data from Education Week shows 40% of district leaders and principals would call their staffing situation “severe” or “very severe” this year. While stress stemming from the coronavirus last year is contributing to about a quarter of teachers nationwide contemplating quitting their jobs, RAND Corp found in a survey earlier this year.
Row of empty desks in front of whiteboard. Interior of classroom in school.
Only 5% of school administrators say staffing shortages are not an issue, while 18% say the shortages are “mild” or “very mild,” Education Week found.
While some districts are forced to cancel classes as a short term answer, others see financial incentives and pay increases as the best fix. The Michigan state superintendent, for example, is suggesting investing between $300-$500 million over the next five years to recruit and retain teachers in the state. Philadelphia substitute teachers are getting $50 daily increases in pay. And West Contra Costa County Unified in California is offering a $6,000 bonus for teachers.
“We need to re-invest now. We need to rebuild the teacher profession,” Michigan superintendent Dr. Michael Rice said.
Increasing pay for teachers is also supported by the Biden administration. First lady Jill Biden, who is a teacher, has said that “the bottom line” is getting more pay to educators, adding that it needs to “start from the top.”
But some are bracing for the issue to get worse.
“What I’m concerned is the potential for a great resignation,” Maryland’s Montgomery County Education Association president Jennifer Martin told NBC 4 on Wednesday.
Montgomery County Public Schools is short 161 teachers and more than 100 paraeducators. The remaining teachers in the district are struggling to help kids with mental health issues stemming from lockdowns during the pandemic and are reporting missing lunch breaks to cover classes that don’t have teachers.
As district leaders juggle filling in the gaps of empty teaching jobs, they’re also coping with custodial, food service and bus driver shortages. In Missouri, a district is hiring its own students to fill maintenance and food service positions within the school.
“Some of the positions have been short-staffed since last year,” Northwest School District Kim Hawk, the district’s chief operating officer, told Fox 2 last week. “We just have struggled to find any help at all, and if you drive around and look at the help-wanted signs everywhere, you know the competition is stiff. So, we knew we had to come up with some other plan.”
In Nevada, principals are vacuuming and mopping up schools amid a custodial shortage.
“You just go into the kitchen and start stuffing some food into the little plastic bags and hand it out to the kids,” the principal of Gwendolyn Woolley Elementary School in North Las Vegas, Joseph Uy, told KUER last week.
“Honestly, I’m tired,” he added.
A bus driver shortage has also plagued schools across the country for months. In Massachusetts, the state called in the National Guard in September to drive kids to school. A grandfather and retired pilot in California started a new career this year and became a bus driver to help with the shortage. In Tennessee, Metro Nashville Public Schools is bracing for the problem to get worse as drivers in the area prepare to strike this week.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), many attempted abductions have happened when the child was traveling to or from school, which is also a time when children are likely to be wearing their backpacks.
The supply chain crisis that is looming over the U.S. as the holiday season picks up is even affecting schools. Some school districts are struggling to feed students or find cafeteria supplies such as plates and cups because of the supply chain crisis.
“We are hoping that deliveries arrive so that we don’t have to adjust our menu to ensure that our students receive meals,” Dimtra Barrios, the director of food service at the Ridley School District in Pennsylvania, told Fox Business last month. Barrios said she is making trips to grocery stores and warehouse suppliers to “get whatever we can get our hands on to make it happen for our students to receive meals.”
In Alabama, the issue is also persisting. Cayce Davis, who directs nutrition for schools in Elmore County, makes trips to Sam’s Club to pick up supplies and food for students as food deliveries are delayed due to the supply crisis.
“This is a quick solution for our meal tomorrow, but it is not a solution to the problem,” Davis told CBS last month. “It appears that there are cracks at all points in the supply chain.”
As districts continue scrambling to keep up with the shortages, for now, schools are looking at “all hands on deck” situations.
“Everyone in our district rolled up our sleeves and covered for one another and made sure that we were able to continue to provide classes today in a thoughtful way,” Northshore, Washington, superintendent Michelle Reid said of her district remaining open last Friday despite shortages.
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