With more than a month of the new school year in the books and schools looking more normal following the COVID-19 pandemic, some school districts around McHenry County continue to struggle with staffing.
Both in the county and across the state, staffing issues – in particular finding teacher aids, assistants and associates, bus drivers and substitute teachers – have been a prominent challenge since the start of the pandemic.
“We need those. They’re important for teachers and students,” Woodstock School District 200 spokesman Kevin Lyons said. “It’s difficult to find people for those positions.”
In District 200, the district has nearly twice as many openings right now compared with this time last year, Lyons said.
Most of those positions are associates, such as classroom aids, specifically for students with disabilities. Last year, the district at this time had about 40 openings. Right now, it’s hovering around 80, with about 60 of those being different types of associates, data provided by the district shows.
Other notable gaps include 10 bus drivers, three tutors for the district’s Advanced Via Individual Determination courses and various custodian and food service openings.
“I would say it’s significant,” Lyons said. “Associate jobs are typically hard to fill. They’re not high-paying jobs.”
McHenry High School District 156 is among the districts fully staffed in terms of their teachers but holding job fairs in an effort to fill support staff roles, Superintendent Ryan McTague said.
Those positions include bilingual and instruction assistant positions and speech and language pathologists, McTague said. One security post was also unfilled.
Surveys taken across the state earlier this year show the shortages have caused districts to cancel courses or move them to online. Some districts have also chosen to fill the jobs with people who are not fully qualified.
As of Oct. 1, 2021, McHenry County had 158 unfilled positions tied to teachers, specialists and paraprofessionals, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.
While District 200 led the list with last year’s data, others include Crystal Lake School District 47 had about 30 various paraprofessional vacancies.
Huntley Community School District 158 came in third with 12 paraprofessional vacancies, along with openings for psychologists, special education teachers, two school nurses and a bilingual education teacher, preliminary data shows.
“We’re hearing from districts about the need for other really critical support professionals who make school work for students like bus drivers, substitute teachers, paraprofessionals. And of course, especially during a pandemic, school nurses,” Jen Kirmes, ISBE’s executive director of teaching and learning, said in January.
For districts like District 200, some positions, like full-time teachers, are in a good spot too, Lyons said. But those positions are filled “with a lot of effort,” including through marketing aimed at attracting teachers and staff.
While its been difficult for other industries as well to find entry-level staff, Lyons said schools have an inherent advantage because of the benefits that come with the jobs they offer.
For example, the district tries to target parents who have children in the district, as the hours line up well for them and their children, along with days off, Lyons said.
“We love working with kids, and we’re looking for people who want to do that,” he said.
This was something McTague agreed with as well, saying parents are a great asset for many of the same reasons.
A new contract for both the district and the educational assistant union will also help make these jobs more attractive, McTague said.
“It is a competitive package,” he said.
On the outlook going forward, McTague said he feels confident. Some possible new hires are “in the door or in the pipeline” and should be in the classroom soon, he said.
Lyons said he isn’t sure if problems will linger into future years.
Survey results taken in January show 90% of districts across the state think these issues will continue into 2023 and 2024. Beyond support staff, a majority expect to face a shortage in administrators in the coming years as well.
“Things are back to normal in schools [post-COVID-19], but how much did [the pandemic] change things? I don’t know,” Lyons said.
Capitol News Illinois contributed to this story.