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

As the leader of suburban River Trails School District 26, Superintendent Nancy Wagner begins each morning with the formidable task of ensuring the latest numbers do not portend a calamity for her students and staff.

Like all educators, Wagner is keeping close tabs on COVID-19 rates during the pandemic to make certain the school community is safe. But the data proving perhaps most daunting for Wagner these days has less to do with the virus, and everything to do with a steep shortage of essential employees needed to keep the Mount Prospect-based district’s four schools up and running.

“Since the start of the school year, there have been a number of days, including today, when we’re asking ourselves, ‘What can we go without today?’” Wagner said in a recent interview. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing, and our staff is amazing, but it’s starting to take its toll.”

A critical shortage of essential school employees in Illinois and across the U.S. this fall — including a scarcity of substitute teachers, school nurses, bus drivers and food service workers — has hit a tipping point this month, nearly forcing officials at one of the state’s largest school districts to cancel classes recently.

Many school administrators say Gov J.B. Pritzker’s recent COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school employees, while necessary, has magnified the already steep challenge of recruiting and retaining noncertified but essential employees.

Still, some experts who have researched pandemic-era employment trends say the school employee shortages this fall can be traced back to the basic economic principle of supply and demand.

Elgin-based School District Unit 46 Superintendent Tony Sanders recalled spending a recent weekend on the phone with “every administrator in the district,” trying to figure out how to comply with the state’s school employee vaccine mandate, while also having enough workers to fill positions at the district’s 57 buildings.

“We were really on the edge of not being able to open one of our schools on a Monday, and came very close, but we were able to pull it off,” said Sanders, who says the vaccine mandate, while imperative, did not give large districts enough time to arrange for in-house, weekly testing for unvaccinated employees.

Sanders said the school district is still struggling to fill hundreds of open positions, including dozens of teachers, 24 food service workers, 17 health services positions and 79 paraprofessionals who assist students in the classroom.

“Our director of food and nutrition services is literally working in lunchrooms, serving students their meals,” Sanders said.

Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent Carmen Ayala offered a slate of suggestions this week to administrators whose school districts are “experiencing staffing challenges.”

Since Pritzker issued a disaster proclamation, school districts may use technology to broadcast the instruction of one in-person teacher to other classrooms in the school that are supervised by parents, volunteers or paraprofessionals, Ayala said in a statement Tuesday.

While Ayala acknowledged that “unlicensed staff or volunteers must be under the supervision of licensed personnel who are physically present in the same building,” she said that the use of “parent mentors can strengthen family engagement, and build the school community.”

School districts can also tap into federal pandemic relief funding to pay parent mentors and tutors, hire additional staff and offer current teachers stipends and retention bonuses, she said.

“I know many districts are also struggling with a shortage of bus drivers — a problem that predates the pandemic and has only gotten worse,” Ayala said.

Chicago Public Schools students and their families have been hit hard by a dearth of bus drivers this fall, leading to the launch of alternate transportation options to transport kids to and from school each day. Driver resignations from private busing contractors prompted the cancellation of bus service for thousands of students, leaving families searching for transportation on the first day of school.

CPS officials are trying to recruit school bus drivers by offering financial incentives, including signing bonuses, CPS’ executive director of student transportation Kimberly Jones, said last month.

Some experts say the burgeoning employee shortages at school districts nationwide reflect a broader economic trend that has emerged during the pandemic — a lack of enthusiasm for service jobs that require working with the public, and which some view as putting them more at risk of contracting COVID.

“The demographics for some of these school employees are older workers, ages 55 and over, who face more risk and are more likely to have left the labor force during the pandemic,” said Eliza Forsythe, an assistant professor and economist at the Labor and Employment Relations School at the University of Illinois.

“It’s basic economics, supply and demand, and schools might be finding it hard to hire employees when they’re competing with companies that have more flexibility in raising wages,” Forsythe said, adding that in the private sector, including restaurants and retailers, “there’s a lot of competition for workers, so many are paying higher wages.”

“This is a new reality that school districts are going to need to come to terms with, and start planning for,” Forsythe said.

“In the short term, schools might have their people helping out, and filling in for open positions, but that’s not good for the employees, and it’s not good for the kids,” she added.

When a bus driver shortage forced Des Plaines School District 62 Superintendent Paul Hertel to slash the number of bus routes from 28 to around 23, the reduction fueled frustration in the community, and added up to a longer commute to school for students.

“During the first week of school, we were asking families to be patient, because many were angry and upset, and saying, ‘You had all summer to prepare, so what happened?’” Hertel said.

“We had to explain that everything that is happening nationally is happening here,” Hertel said. “We’re doing everything we can, and we’re doing OK, but it’s not perfect.”

Wagner, the superintendent at River Trails, said she remains optimistic that potential employees will be attracted to the district’s benefits package and friendly, neighborhood work environment.

“We’re advertising, and doing everything we can, but part of the problem is some of these jobs don’t pay as well as what some local restaurants are offering,” said Wagner, who recalled seeing a sign posted in front of a nearby restaurant, promising wages of $17 an hour.

“All of our full-time employees get health insurance, so we’re hoping that might be enough of an impetus to apply,” Wagner said, adding: “But some applicants have said they’d need their whole paycheck just to pay for day care. It looks like it’s going to be a really tough year.”

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