How some school districts are coping with staff shortages, other pandemic disruptions

Public schools across the U.S. are taking a break for Thanksgiving after a more traditional fall semester that saw students largely back in their classes in person. But many teachers and staff did not return this year, causing a shortage of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, custodians and more. In some cases, it's even led to virtual classes. PBS NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs team reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Public schools across the U.S. are taking a break for Thanksgiving, after a more traditional fall semester that saw students largely back in their classes in-person.

    But it is still a long way from the usual. Many teachers and staff did not return this year, and that's meant a shortage of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, custodial staff, and more. In some cases, it's even led to virtual classes.

    Our student reporting team reached out around the country and asked educators and students about how this was affecting them. Here is some of what they told us.

  • Ryan Dang, Student:

    I was waiting, like, 30 minutes for my bus driver to come pick me and my classmates up to go to school, but they ended up never coming, and we had to call the office, and they ended up sending an extra bus.

  • Darlin Diaz-Velazquez, Student:

    My school had a lot of vacant spots for teachers. The sixth graders only had one teacher available, so other staff members had to fill in.

  • Tahari Gary, Student:

    I don't even have an English teacher. And it makes it really hard to learn with no one in the classroom.

  • Cody Wolfe, Student:

    I had to go to the auditorium here at our building because our teacher wasn't here. And, in the auditorium, there was three other math classes.

  • Sam Bartlett, Assistant Principal, Eagle Valley High School:

    We largely don't have enough substitutes. At the beginning of the school year, I believe that the administrative team, including our principal and the three assistant principals, were covering about 20 percent of the absences.

  • Jaizarlyn Suarez, Student:

    A lot of them may not know, like, the topic that we're learning, so it's really hard to keep learning in school. And you sort of feel stuck.

    Being a junior in high school, this is a very important year for us, and to not have the right teachers is really frustrating.

  • Darlin Diaz-Velazquez:

    You're on your own. You have to read the material to the projects and the quizzes and the exams on your own, and you kind of lose motivation. You get tired of sitting there for so long and doing it on your own.

  • Christine Alonzo, Substitute Teacher, Maui High School:

    People want to go into education, but they can't because they feel like they're choosing between their passion, which is educating and inspiring, and just growing up and paying bills.

  • JOSE ESTEVEZ, John A. Ferguson Senior High School:

    If I had known 20-something years ago that I would be stuck at the same pay scale, more or less, I probably wouldn't have made this choice.

  • Jaizarlyn Suarez:

    The pandemic has made me change my mind-set on what a good teacher actually is.

    With the pandemic, a lot of people developed, like, mental health issues and aren't, like, really coming back as themselves. And a teacher who understands that we were just in a pandemic and we are just high schoolers, that's really, to me, what makes a good teacher.

  • Spencer Wilson, Dean, Brentwood High School:

    A good teacher has to be born. You can't just make them come into the business just because they have summers off or the pay is good.

    So, to attract new teachers, I mean, I guess we would have to go with salary and hope that people that are born to teach fall into the career.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Our communities correspondents have been tracking how this is playing out where they are based, and two of them join me now.

    Gabrielle Hays is in St. Louis, and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

    And hello to both of you.

    And, Gabrielle, I'm going to start with you.

    You have been talking to education officials. You have been looking at schools in Missouri. Tell us what you're hearing and seeing there.

  • Gabrielle Hays:

    So, we're seeing these shortages across the state.

    And here in St. Louis, one of our school systems, St. Louis Public Schools, tells us that they have experienced over 200 vacancies, and that includes teachers and other support staff.

    And so I think the way that we're really able to see how this is affecting our state is kind of through the solutions that districts are coming up with. So, that's everything from some school districts paying their bus drivers more to be custodians when they're not driving.

    We have one district in Missouri that's now hiring some of its own high school students to fill in some of those nonteacher roles. But, again, it's a state issue, right? So our state has pledged $50 million over the next couple of years to try to fill in some of the gaps, and also to attract more teachers, because the state says that it has seen a dip in that.

    And so they have created tools and they're putting money towards it. And it continues to be a real issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Frances, you have been looking at the schools and talking to people across Michigan, and you're seeing some similar challenges.

  • Frances Kai-Hwa Wang:

    Yes, here in Michigan, winter has just started, which is also the beginning of flu season, and COVID is spiking.

    Michigan is currently number one in COVID cases, in new COVID cases. And so schools are trying to balance the traditional teacher shortages, substitute shortages, as well as increasing cases. So, some of the things that school districts are doing include shifting the schedule to four days in person, one day remote.

    And, during that time, they have the support staff, like bus drivers and food service people, double up on custodial duty to help deep-clean the schools on those Fridays with electrostatic sprayers and U.V. lights. Other school districts are closing on days they anticipate there will be substitute shortages and teacher shortages, so that they call it ahead of time, so that parents can prepare.

    So, such as Thanksgiving, instead of the regular three days, they have extended to — they have added Monday and Tuesday off as well. And that gives them a chance to disrupt the COVID cycle.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Frances, you were telling us some of these staffing issues existed even before the pandemic hit.

  • Frances Kai-Hwa Wang:

    Yes, these are longstanding issues.

    Salaries in Michigan have — if you account for inflation, salaries have actually gone down 16 percent over the last 20 years. Retirements have gone up due — during — due to COVID in the last year. Retirements were up 40 percent over what they had been the previous four years.

    And the number and most pressing — the number of college students who are studying to become teachers in the state of Michigan has gone down 50 percent over the last six years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And back to you, Gabrielle.

    I know, in your reporting, you have looked at whether these schools are financially prepared to deal with the kind of challenges that are now facing them.

  • Gabrielle Hays:

    Yes, you know, I think it's important to remember — and we learned this through our interviewing — that while some school districts — and a lot of them were able get some CARES funding, and they are using that to do different things, a lot of these issues existed before the pandemic started, as Frances said.

    So, when we're talking about teacher shortages, a lot of that in some cases has to do with teacher pay. And Missouri is not alone in that. I mean, we have seen that across the country. And it's a thing in Missouri as well, but also the amount of funding that school districts get from the state, and that matters. That matters, especially if we're talking about issues that happened before the pandemic when a pandemic hits.

    And not having those funds and maybe not being funded adequately, well, it matters more than maybe it did before.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Frances, just quickly, what — have you seen something similar with regard to financing in Michigan?

  • Frances Kai-Hwa Wang:

    Yes.

    In Michigan, the educational revenue growth in Michigan is 50th out of 50 states. And so teachers are trying to increase pay rates for substitute teachers. They're trying to increase pay rates for support staff. And they are also offering — whatever benefits they can offer their teachers, they're extending to substitutes, so such as vaccination clinics.

    And then, also, they are trying to promote these grow-your-own teacher programs, where they can encourage and help paraprofessionals and support staff who want to become teachers, help support them, so that they can become teachers as well in the schools that they're already a part of.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is such a difficult set of issues. And it is facing so many of our public schools across the country.

    We thank you to Frances Kai-Hwa Wang and to Gabrielle Hays, our two — two of our communities reporters. Thank you both so much.

    And you can read more about this issue from our reporters across the country on our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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