What's behind the worker shortage in American schools

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Coffin Elementary School is facing staffing challenges schools are facing due to COVID exposures and quarantines. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Coffin Elementary School is facing staffing challenges schools are facing due to COVID exposures and quarantines. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Schools are facing a shortage of bus drivers. Custodians. Substitute teachers. Cafeteria workers.

“I’m hearing about teachers sacrificing their planning periods to cover for classrooms that don’t have an assigned teacher available. Administrators stepping into classrooms, or into school buses or lunch lines," school finance reporter Mark Lieberman says. "School districts going out to the community and asking parents to step into these various roles.”

What does this mean for educators?

“Educators are experts at this. They will find a way to get enough adults into the classroom," education reporter Koby Levin says. "The cost though is that folks end up doing coverage that’s really outside of the scope of their duties, and that means they can’t work on the kind of programming that’s going to help students recover from the pandemic."

It's a cost that is shaping the entire education system.

"When we’re missing key players in schools – folks like bus drivers, special education aides – the whole system just gets spread a little bit thinner," Levin adds.

Today, On Point: When the system is spread thin, who suffers most? We navigate the impact of a worker shortage in American schools.


Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools in Michigan. (@AZacheryRoss)

Koby Levin, reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering inequity in schools. (@levin_koby)

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Caroline Dylewski, director of nutrition services at Warren Consolidated Schools in Michigan.

Betty Nostrant, stay-at-home mom in Flint, Michigan.

Interview Highlights

On what worker shortages mean for the learning and educational experience kids are getting 

Alena Zachery-Ross: "Our teachers and educators have been used to pivoting and supporting students all along. However, this has exacerbated them, this pandemic. And so being able to have that balance of safety and meeting the academic needs is becoming a stretch. Our teachers have been working in small groups, meeting student needs, and that has become more challenging.

"When I hear about that food service person, director and the food supply chain, I think about even our nurses. They're usually coming and checking in with students first thing in the morning. But now they're looking at menus to make sure that allergies are being met, dietary restrictions are being met. And so those times where the collaboration is happening, the planning is happening, the innovation — that's not going on right now. We are at merely almost just survival mode to make sure the safety needs are being met, so that academics can still go on."

What do you think is causing this sudden shortage? 

Alena Zachery-Ross: "We keep hearing about this great resignation, and we see now in the private sector where there's these $2,000 signing bonuses. You can get paid the first week you work, increase in pay. And so we are seeing people, first of all, be caught out to use their services, because the private sector is in need. Secondly, folks have been, over the last two years, they understand that there is an opportunity to work from home, and use their same talents and have that same rate of pay.

"And so we see people staying home to work from home, and enjoying that flexibility because of the pandemic. And they still maybe have some concerns about being in the public sector. And then lastly, let's just be real. It is a lot of stress and strain in this role. And so they're wondering, is my safety being exposed to multiple people? Is that the right place for me? Should I go into the field of education? Because right now everyone has a focus, a light on education, and it makes people shy away from that light sometimes."

How national is this shortage that's hitting public schools?

Koby Levin: "It is very national. This is an economic situation, I mean, there's market forces at play here that are above my pay grade, and that are affecting every industry. I think what's being highlighted in the case of schools is that they cannot compete with other low-wage industries. The grocery industry was mentioned. We do have an Amazon warehouse here in the Detroit area. And so folks who are doing really essential work in schools could easily make more doing a job that is frankly easier, and less critical to our society. And so schools really have their hands tied in a lot of cases. I mean, they can raise wages a little bit. They can offer a hiring incentive using federal funds. But we are still seeing, all across the country, difficulties in hiring."

When America talks about how much it values education, is that really just blowing smoke?

Alena Zachery-Ross: "They tell us when you want to look at what we value, look at our checkbook and look at our calendar. And right now we've seen this money come into schools, which we appreciate. Yet all of a sudden the money was available? This money should have always been allocated to schools. We know that our students are our most valuable contributors to our future. And so right now, we need to look at what's going to happen after this three years. This funding formula needs to be changed. We need to ensure that those most vulnerable are able to get what they need even after the ESSER III money comes. And it's time for people to put money where we say we value most: our children."

On ideas for tackling long-term staff shortages

Koby Levin: "I'm really glad you raised this idea of a sort of constellation or interconnected system. Supporting increasing teacher salaries, which happens to be really popular with the public, doesn't solve a real significant issue with the folks who we are learning are essential workers in schools. Substitute teachers, aides, other support staff. I've written actually quite a bit about about teacher turnover and teacher shortages in areas of Michigan. And one of the things that comes through is that it is not just pay that pushes teachers out of the profession, or discourages people from entering it in the first place.

"It's the sense that they're doing much more than they've ever had to before. They're the social worker, they're the school nurse, they're the special education aide. And the reason for that is because there aren't enough other adults, often in schools, in classrooms, supporting teachers. And that makes it really difficult for these communities, these systems to function with each person being fully supported and also fully able to do the job that they are there to do.

"So how do you change that? Well, a new contract for paraprofessionals is maybe a start. But you know, again, there's a bigger conversation to be had in Michigan about our overall funding formula. How, for instance, special education students are supported in our current system here in Michigan. Special education spending comes out of general budgets. So we sort of rob Peter to pay Paul in order to support special education students. Other students lose out. And I think if you look across the system, you'll see lots of other examples of that kind of dynamic playing out."

From The Reading List

Education Week: "The School Staffing Crisis Won’t End Any Time Soon" — "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."

This program aired on December 13, 2021.


Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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