School Staffing Shortages Are Slamming Economically Disadvantaged Districts

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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A breaking study from the Center for Education Data and Research combed through school district job postings affecting 98% of Washington state students, and its results were dire. North Face-wearing, Mercedes-driving, Botoxing districts like Mercer Island, where home prices hover at 2 million, have filled 98% of their support staff jobs. To the north, Tukwila, Washington’s school district of 2,800 — where two-thirds of students are BIPOC or Asian, and three-quarters low-income — still searches for an “extra cafeteria worker, two additional bus drivers and four paraeducators,” two months into the school year. While school staffing shortages plague many districts post-pandemic, they’re slamming poorer districts hard.

In Tukwila, district admins have been forced to substitute teach. Their transportation direction — “normally a desk position” — has driven buses. “The impact of a staffing shortage feels more severe this year than it has in the past,” said Tukwila Human Resources Director Aaron Draganov, citing “an unusually high number of retirements.”

Over in the Land That Poverty Forgot, one can only imagine the Mercer County School District HR Director biting her nails. “If you want to talk about staff shortages, we’re probably not the district to talk to, because we’re doing pretty well,” she said. School staffing shortages? They’re worrying more about how much to tip the dog groomer this Christmas.

These School Staffing Shortages Represent A Common Pattern

The study showed that “Poorer districts were in need of paraeducators and transportation workers at roughly twice and three times the rates, respectively, of their more affluent counterparts.” They also needed more teachers for English language learners, nurses, janitors, and special educators: people who students rely on most to bounce back from the pandemic. School staffing shortages have hit poorer districts hard, and the inequities look stark when laid out.

Here’s what it looks like, according to EdWeek: teachers have no lunch period: they’re too busy covering other classes to eat. They supervise lunches and drive school buses. 40% of “district leaders and principals” say their current school staffing shortages look “severe” or “very severe” according to an EdWeek survey. Most have responded by asking current staff to take on more responsibility. Which kicks current teachers in the teeth, but they don’t have much of a choice when 77% can’t find an adequate number of substitute teachers. Which makes sense: No one wants to enter a poorly-ventilated building swimming in Covid and yell at children to pull up their masks — which may not even be mandated.

At one middle school in a North Carolina district, applicants have repeatedly told the principal they could likely make seven dollars more per hour working at Chik-Fil-A.

One first-grade teacher in Denver’s urban school district says that she has no support she could usually call on for help, such as lunch monitors and substitute teachers. “The biggest thing right now is that the mental health needs and academic needs are so high it’s an unsustainable system on teachers due to the staff shortages,” said Alysa Hawkins. “I don’t know how we can keep going at this point.” Schools are not swept every day as janitors are shifted between schools. Students’ mental health issues are not addressed.

Denver Public Schools have 1360 open positions: 700 subs, 400 paraprofessionals, and 100 classroom teachers. “The education system is not working and I think we need to have a conversation on when we are going to accept that,” said one North High School teacher.

Districts Forced To Cut Special Services

Meanwhile, in sixteen districts in Oregon, including Eugene, one day of life skills classes for students with cognitive disabilities has been cut. These classes teach math, reading, and everyday skills, and cutting them is a violation of a the Americans with Disabilities Act. Oregon officials say they’re facing “a real crisis situation” when it comes to school staffing shortages of all kinds, not only of special education teachers.

But the Evanston/Skokie School District, outside of Chicago, is in even more trouble. They’ve closed for a day because “we do not have adequate staffing or sub coverage.” They have 4120 open positions, but “insiders say” to focus instead on multiplying that number by twenty: the number of kids who are affected by those school staffing shortages. “The shortages are breaking along existing lines of disparity,” said Dan Goldhaber, a University of Washington education economist.

If your child needs special education in a wealthy district, you’re in luck. But in urban areas or a poverty-ridden rural district, you might be out of luck. As one Oregon administrator says, “The Student Success Act gave us money for more counselors. We cannot find them.”

In the end, richer districts have an easier time filling positions. The work’s viewed as easier, and the students more well-behaved. Parents seem more involved, and in general, teachers believe that more affluent districts mean less stress, less extra work. Poorer districts mean school staff shortages, more work — and the cycle continues.

The pandemic’s been hard on school. But as staffing shortages show, it’s not over, and we’ll be seeing its effects for a long time.

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