Oct. 13—Harford County Public Schools have more than 100 vacancies throughout the system and have been forced to find ways to fill in the gaps. However, staff remain optimistic the openings will be filled and want to remind the public that the school system is a great place to work.
Food and nutrition, transportation and health services are three departments that have significant shortages and are balancing smaller staffs with increased workload.
Feeding more with less
The food and nutrition department released a video explaining that not only has it lost 35% of its front-line cafeteria staff since the pandemic started, but product shortages have arisen as well. And since a federal grant allowed the department to serve free food to all students, the number of students receiving free breakfast and lunch went from about 17,000 students to 32,000.
Kristen Sudzina, director of food and nutrition, said in an interview the schools typically have 475 front-line staff members. About 101 to 103 of them are considered full-time. Now, front-line workers total about 350, though that number fluctuates.
The majority are considered part-time, meaning they are only paid if they work. School closures at the start of the pandemic left few opportunities for part-timers to work, Sudzina said. She added that most of the staff they lost were part-time workers, who are "really the ones we needed the most."
This school year, the number of students eating free meals increased. At Bel Air High School, for example, 400 to 500 students would eat school breakfasts during a typical year, Sudzina said. Now, with the new federal grant, the school is serving about 720 breakfasts.
Derek Layser, assistant supervisor for food and nutrition, said the schools are not only trying to find creative ways to make up for the lack of staff, but they also have to train the new people they do get, making sure students and staff are social distancing, identifying food allergens, and making sure high school students can quickly get through the longer lines so they have enough time to eat.
Sudzina said they are thankful for the staff members who stayed with them. Still, many qualified workers were lost.
"We understand we can't provide benefits for all of our employees," she said, adding that former staff members have in many cases found full-time positions elsewhere.
Layser said the school system has started interviewing candidates, participated in job fairs, and attempted to bring excitement back to the job.
"We know we still have a long way to go to being back to where we were," he said.
In the meantime, Sudzina said staff members are reminding themselves to keep going for the sake of the kids.
Drivers still wanted
Harford County, like many counties in the state, has experienced school bus driver shortages since the school year started. However, while trying not to sound overly optimistic, Cathy Bendis, director of transportation, said she's seeing more applicants.
"One of the things that is a challenge that kind of piles on staffing shortages is that it does take several months to have somebody trained," Bendis said.
One of the ways the school system is combating the shortage of drivers is by offering mileage reimbursements to parents of special education students who drive their children to school, Bendis said. In addition, bus contractors and HCPS office staff have had filled in when driver shortages crop up.
"My staff has stepped up huge," she said.
There are 25 vacancies for the general education routes and 28 vacancies for special education routes, as well as 17 bus attendant vacancies. Bendis encouraged anyone who's interested to apply and noted they have great benefits.
Nurses: 'Challenging but rewarding'
Mary Nasuta, the supervisor of health services, said there are six full-time and three part-time openings in her department, which isn't normal. The department also has received fewer job applications. And Harford County is not alone. Nasuta noted there is a nationwide nursing shortage, stemming in part from low enrollment in nursing school programs.
The pandemic also didn't help, she said.
Still, Nasuta said she's grateful HCPS has at least one nurse in every school building as well as two floating nurses for emergencies. The school system also has contracted with nurses for the first time. And nurses are teaching staff and school administrators how to care for kids with chronic health problems in case a nurse is not in the building.
Nurses also have an added duty: contact tracing for anyone exposed to COVID-19. School administrators help with making phone calls, but but what takes the most time is investigating who the close contacts are.
Nasuta said the goal is to increase staff and reduce the workload, which will hopefully end the cycle of nurses leaving. She encouraged any qualified applicants to apply.
The perks go beyond getting holidays, weekends and summers off, she said. Nurses can also make an impact in the schools and the community.
"It's challenging, but rewarding," she said. "We're proud of what we do but we're trying to attract the right people when the pool is so small."
Nasuta said she's eager to hire people and has even pitched the job to people wearing scrubs in grocery stores.
Chantress Baptist, director of human resources, said additional vacancies include 23 para educators, three tech services employees, 28 inclusion helpers, six custodians, four clerical workers and five teachers. Nurses and substitute teachers also are needed.
Before the pandemic hit, the school system was able to fill 93% of its vacant staff positions. That number now stands at 81%. Baptist said exit interviews show that staff members leave for a wide variety of reasons. But she did note that many teachers have retired.
Anyone interested in applying for a school system position can visit the school system's website.