Beyond COVID-19, there’s another crisis emerging in Chicago-area schools: A critical shortage of workers

Superintendent Nancy Wagner is the school district's leader. Each morning she begins with the daunting task of making sure that the latest numbers are not a disaster for students and staff.
Wagner, like all educators, is closely monitoring COVID-19 rates to ensure school safety. Wagner is finding it difficult to interpret the data these days. It has nothing to do the virus and everything to do the severe shortage of employees required to maintain the four Mount Prospect schools.

Wagner stated in a recent interview that there have been many days since the beginning of the school year when we were asking ourselves "What can we do without today?" Although it is a team effort, our staff is exceptional, it is starting to show its age.

This month has seen a critical shortage of school workers in Illinois and the United States. It includes substitute teachers, school nurses and bus drivers. Officials at the largest school district in the state were almost forced to cancel classes.

Many school administrators believe that Gov J.B. Pritzkers' recent COVID-19 vaccination mandate for school employees has only increased the already difficult task of recruiting and keeping non-certified, but vital, employees.

However, experts who have studied employment trends during the pandemic era claim that the fall in school staff shortages can be attributed to the economic principle of supply-demand.

Tony Sanders, Elgin School District 46 Superintendent, recalled talking to every administrator in the district over the phone recently to try to find ways to comply with the state's school employee vaccination mandate while still having enough workers to fill the 57 buildings.

We were on the brink of not being allowed to open one our schools on Mondays, but we managed to do it. Sanders said that the mandate for vaccines, although imperative, didn't give large districts enough time for weekly testing in their own facilities for employees who were not vaccinated.

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Sanders stated that the school district still struggles to fill hundreds of vacant positions, including teachers, food service workers, 17 positions in health services, and 79 paraprofessionals who help students in the classroom.

Sanders stated that Sanders, our director of food and nutritional services, is actually working in lunchrooms serving students their meals.

Carmen Ayala, Superintendent of Illinois State Board of Education, offered several suggestions to school district administrators who are facing staffing difficulties.

Pritzker's disaster proclamation has allowed school districts to use technology to broadcast instruction from one teacher in person to other schools that are monitored by volunteers, parents or paraprofessionals, Ayala stated in a Tuesday statement.

Ayala admitted that volunteers and staff not licensed must be under the direct supervision of licensed personnel. However, she stated that parent mentors can help strengthen family engagement and build school communities.

She said that school districts can also use federal pandemic relief funds to hire tutors and parent mentors, pay additional staff, and give retention bonuses and stipends to current teachers.

A shortage of bus drivers is a problem in many areas, Ayala stated. This problem predates the pandemic.

Chicago Public Schools students have been hard hit by a shortage of bus drivers this autumn, which led to the creation of alternative transportation options to get kids to school every day. Private busing companies resigned drivers, resulting in the cancellation of bus service for thousands. Families were left searching for transportation the first day of school.

CPS officials want to hire school bus drivers through financial incentives including signing bonuses, Kimberly Jones, CPS executive director for student transportation, stated last month.

Experts believe that the growing shortage of employees in school districts across the country is a reflection of a larger economic trend. This includes a lack of interest in service jobs that involve working with the public and some consider it a higher risk for COVID.

Eliza Forsythe is an assistant professor and economist at The Labor and Employment Relations School at University of Illinois. She said that some of these school employees are older workers who are at greater risk and more likely to have left the workforce during the pandemic.

It's simple economics. Supply and demand. Schools might find it difficult to hire workers when they compete with companies that are more flexible in raising wages. Forsythe added that there is a lot of competition in the private sector including restaurants and retailers. Many pay higher wages.

Forsythe stated that this is a new reality which school districts will need to accept and begin planning for.

While schools may have people working in the short-term, it is not beneficial for their employees or the children.

Des Plaines School District No. 62 Superintendent Paul Hertel had to reduce the number of bus routes by 28 to 23 due to a shortage of drivers. This increased frustration and made it more difficult for students to get to school.

We asked families to be patient during the first week of school because so many were upset and angry. Hertel replied, "You had all summer to prepare. So what happened?"

Hertel stated that we had to explain that all that was happening in the country is also happening here. We are doing all we can and it is working, but not perfectly.

Wagner, River Trails' superintendent, stated that she is optimistic about the district's benefits package as well as the friendly work environment.

Wagner said that while we were advertising and doing all we could, part of the problem was that some of these jobs don't pay as much as local restaurants. Wagner recalled seeing a sign in front of a nearby restaurant promising $17 an hour.

Wagner stated that all full-time employees have health insurance. We hope this will be enough to encourage applicants to apply. However, some applicants claim they would need to use their entire paycheck to pay for daycare. It appears that this will be a very difficult year.

kcullotta@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @kcullotta

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