Lillian Simmons, a substitute teacher at Round Rock ISD for the last two years, said she does not plan to take assignments within the district for the remainder of the school year.

December and January spikes in COVID-19 cases throughout Central Texas and beyond combined with the fact that she is immunocompromised make it unsafe for her to return to work, she said.

“[RRISD] needs subs. They can’t get enough subs, but I’m just scared of going because I’m scared of catching COVID,” she said. “I do have some lung damage because of my rheumatoid arthritis.”

Data from Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto ISDs shows that her story is part of an ongoing trend centered on historic staffing and absence issues for area districts.

Central Texas saw a substantial spike in COVID-19 cases and subsequent absences over the 2021-22 winter break. That led to administrators having to take drastic measures, including amplified class sharing, the suspension of bus transportation at Hutto ISD, and temporary cancellation of all the campus operations and Hutto and Pflugerville ISDs.

Additionally, district officials said positions throughout multiple departments—not just substitutes and teachers—have been extremely difficult to fill recently and throughout the pandemic.

As such, administrators in the three area districts have prioritized financial and other incentive-based strategies and policies hoping to reverse the momentum.

“Overall, in my 15 years in public education, this is the most short staffed we’ve been in a broad number of areas,” PfISD Chief Communications Officer Tamra Spence said.

Immediate staffing crisis

Johanna Harmon, a teacher at Weiss High School in PfISD, said she does not recall having too much trouble finding a substitute for her classes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but lately, there have not been enough people to meet the need.

“Substitutes are always in demand, but what’s unique is how many absences there are above and beyond the substitutes that we can even find,” Harmon said.

Recent data shows unfilled sub requests from the three districts generally increased from 11%-17% in January 2019 to 45%-61% in January 2022.

Jenny Lacoste-Caputo, chief of public affairs and communications for RRISD, said the district has been enacting and considering several initiatives in an effort to reverse the momentum of the ongoing staffing shortage.

For the spring 2022 semester, the district approved a stipend for teachers who cover classes when a substitute is needed during their planning periods, she said.

So far, district efforts to alleviate staffing shortages have been working and not resulting in canceling classes or programs, Lacoste-Caputo said.

HISD and PfISD have not been as fortunate.

HISD had to suspend all regular bus routes starting Jan. 10 due to a shortage of transportation staff.

The district also closed all campus operations Jan. 17-19 due to an overwhelming number of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19.

In a letter to students, parents and staff, HISD Superintendent Celina Estrada Thomas said 200 staff members and 1,680 students were absent Jan. 14.

Though PfISD has so far not canceled bus operations, the district closed its schools and offices Jan. 21-24 due to COVID-19 cases.

While vital operations at RRISD have so far evaded temporary cancellations, Lacoste-Caputo said district administrators are not ruling such measures out.

“If we had enough staff absences that we could not safely operate a school because we didn’t have enough staffing, ... then we would need to close that campus,” she said.

Longer-term staffing shortage

At RRISD, Lacoste-Caputo said the staffing crisis has more to do with absences caused by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases than it does with filling permanent positions.

Though she said she could not accommodate a request for the number of vacant positions at RRISD, the district has remained for the most part well staffed, even through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State data shows that RRISD could be skirting a statewide trend centered on school district staff vacancies.

Public school advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas recently released its 2021 Texas Teacher Workforce Report, which showed that from the 2010-11 school year to the 2019-20 school year, retention rates for first-year teachers statewide dropped to 49.8%.

At PflSD and HISD, district representatives said staffing issues that already comported with statewide trends have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic.

Spence said just like every other industry across the country, PfISD is feeling the pinch.

Teachers, substitutes, educational aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodial workers have all seen higher vacancies this school year versus years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No one has ever seen the number of vacancies in the middle of the year like we have right now,” Spence said. “This is a struggle that we’re seeing across all industries, but definitely within education, and Pflugerville is no different.”

Spence said she cannot speculate on the role the pandemic has played on the staffing problem, but it certainly constitutes a portion of the cause.

August Plock, a Pflugerville High School teacher and president of the Pflugerville Educators Association, said he believes while it does play a role, the pandemic does not constitute the entirety of staffing difficulties districts are seeing.

Plock said with the recent rebounding of the economy after a near free fall in mid-2020, teachers and other staff are seeking more lucrative opportunities outside public education. He also said a wave of administrative retirements has led teachers to seek higher-paying positions in central offices of school districts, including at PfISD.

“So, you’re getting hit in three different ways,” Plock said.

•Spence said she is confident that many school districts throughout the country, including PfISD, will likely not return to prepandemic staffing levels any time soon.

The district could not provide specific numbers, but Spence confirmed PfISD had about 60 teacher vacancies, about 60 educational associates, about 70 transportation vacancies and about 20 custodial vacancies as of mid-January.

Prior to the pandemic, Spence said any number of teacher vacancies over 20 would be considered high.

“Sixty is far and away the most vacancies that I’ve ever seen at this point,” she said.

Similarly, at HISD, Director of Human Capital Lindsie Almquist said the district has had the most staff vacancies in the 2021-22 school year than any year prior.

HISD is also experiencing shortages across the board from teachers to subs to custodians to bus drivers to cafeteria workers.

“In the two years that I have served as the director of human capital, we have had the most teacher vacancies for the longest amount of time in the last ... four to five months that we have ever had,” Almquist said.

Moving forward

Administrators said they cannot predict when the immediate spike in absences or the longer-term staffing shortage will become more manageable for their respective districts, but they continue to initiate and approve measures to help stop the bleeding.

At RRISD, Lacoste-Caputo said officials are considering more pay boost measures for certain staff, including substitutes.

“These aren’t things that have been put in place yet, but they’re things that are under consideration right now,” she said.

Keeping staff on board and mitigating vacancies are a problem that districts nationwide are trying to solve, Spence said.

Because of that, PfISD is also ramping up efforts toward that end—from increased job fairs to pay increases for all staff to grants to help expedite the process of getting educational associates certified to be teachers.

“Teachers and public education staff are honestly modern-day heroes,” she said. “They’re filling in in a myriad of ways to take care of students. We’re doing everything we can to compensate for that and show them that we need them.”

HISD continues to take similar actions to retain staff, including most recently paying out a $300 stipend in December to staff members who worked during the 2020-21 school year and returned for the 2021-22 school year.

She said the district also increased the daily minimum pay rate for substitute teachers to $120.

Almquist said it will remain crucial for HISD and districts everywhere to continue finding ways to keep jobs in education sustainable.

“We absolutely cannot sustain the future of our country unless we feed into these people that are serving these children,” she said. “And we cannot fix everything, ... but we can provide a narrative that if we did not have a teacher, ... you and I would not be here today because we would not be as successful as we are.”