Few solutions for staffing shortages in area school districts

Help wanted. It’s a sign we’re accustomed to seeing at restaurants and shops, but these days we find it almost everywhere including local schools, which are facing staffing shortages.

The substitute teaching pool is about one-third of what it was in years past, making it difficult when a teacher falls sick and creates challenges if a long-term substitute is needed for a maternity leave, said Jeff Bergholtz, director of human resources for Community High School District 99 in Downers Grove.

“We are finding it much more difficult to fill positions with the small number of substitutes,” Bergholtz said.

When a substitute is unavailable, one of the options is to ask teachers to take on an extra period of instruction, but Bergholtz said it’s not the best solution as it can leave teachers overworked.

While the district has been able to fill its certified teaching positions, it faces a crunch in other areas, including support staff, paraprofessionals and custodial staff. This fall, there are about 20 vacant positions, Bergholtz said.

There are several factors behind the staffing shortages including concerns related to the pandemic and a competitive job market. School districts are competing against larger companies that offer higher pay and less risks. Meanwhile, “gig” jobs such as food shopping and delivery services offer more flexibility with hours and locations.

In addition, some families face hurdles with child care and the need to be flexible as their own children’s schedules can change quickly with school and day care COVID-19 protocols making it difficult for some parents to accept full-time work.

“We’re not immune to the staffing shortages,” said Kevin Russell, superintendent for Downers Grove Grade School District 58.

Some schools face factors beyond their control. For example, District 58 contracts its transportation services and when the bus company faces a shortage of drivers, it requires the district to alter its schedules and programming.

For instance, with less drivers available, District 58 schools have had to shift some athletic activities to later start times, which means students are getting home later or parents have to shuttle them home from school and then return to school to board a bus for a basketball game that might not start until 7 p.m. and finish after 8 p.m.

While the changes can seem minor, they are less than ideal for middle school age students who still might need to eat dinner, finish homework and get a good night’s rest.

“Our games used to end at 6 p.m.,” Russell said.

Russell, who has been an educator for more than 20 years, said he remembers the surplus of teachers when he began his career as an elementary school teacher.

“Those days are long gone,” he said.

Another factor for schools is the additional staffing required to manage COVID-19 protocols. Russell said it’s not uncommon for his building principals to pitch in cleaning lunch tables or moving furniture to help with daily setup and takedown for lunches.

“Lunch now requires so many additional people. Parents and volunteers have stepped up to help. We are so grateful for the families and community who has stepped up,” Russell said.

Creative solutions

The issues are occurring across the state and country, and school administrators are working hard to find solutions.

Glenbard Township High School District 87 is trying to help its third-party vendors, including its transportation and custodial services with their staffing shortages by including information in school websites and newsletters.

“We publicize a link to their job postings in our e-newsletter. We have worked hard with our third-party contractors to identify creative solutions that, despite ongoing labor shortages, maintain appropriate support for our instructional day,” District 87 Community Relations Coordinator Peg Mannion said.

In Woodridge School District 68, the school board approved a measure to increase its pay rate for substitute teachers. The rate of $120 a day will increase to $160 a day starting Dec. 1. The raise coincides with the district hosting an open house Dec. 1 to recruit more substitute teachers.

Like other school districts in the area, state and country, Woodridge 68 is experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers, said Amy Melinder, the district’s director of community engagement. She said the district had a similar open house event a few years ago with success.

One area of concern is attracting students into the field of education. In District 99, there is an Intro to Teaching program in which high school students can get a hands-on opportunity to learn about teaching and spend time in a classroom, building an interest for a future career.

Russell raised questions regarding the number of certifications the state requires for some teaching positions and said these can present hurdles to finding the right candidates for positions within schools.

Another avenue to seek out candidates has been asking staff members to make referrals. In District 99, there is a new referral program. A staff member is eligible for a monetary bonus after referring a candidate who successfully completes the application process and probationary period.

District 99 had an in-person job fair this fall where it rewarded attendees with a store gift card and raffled off an additional gift card. Bergholtz said the fair wasn’t large, but it brought in several candidates and there was positive feedback from attendees who appreciated the opportunity to meet in person and discuss the open positions.

“There is some efficiency to online, and there are still those who prefer the old-fashion approach,” Bergholtz said.

While there are no fast solutions, for administrators such as Bergholtz working for the district goes beyond a career. As a Downers Grove North graduate, he knows that having the best candidates working and sharing their love of education in the district is more than an idea.

“This is a great community,” Bergholtz said. “I care about this community. I have a little bit extra of an invested interest because this community is part of who I am.”