Districts scramble to keep schools staffed

Pie charts of open positions by district
(Sources: Gilbert Public Schools, Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Sources: Gilbert Public Schools, Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)

Image description
(Sources: Gilbert Public Schools, Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)
Image description
(Sources: Arizona Department of Education, Gilbert Public Schools, Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)
Already attempting to persist through labor shortages, particularly for teachers, school districts now find themselves trying to weather the COVID-19 storm through every means available, district officials said.

While teacher positions have been difficult to fill, officials said many other staff positions have also seen shortages.

“It really is all of them,” said Mum Martens, Higley USD’s executive director of human resources, about what vacant positions have been troublesome. “Everything’s hard to fill.”

The three school districts that serve Gilbert—Gilbert Public Schools, Higley USD and Chander USD—reported bus drivers and substitute teachers have been a particular concern with HUSD also identifying custodians and GPS identifying paraprofessionals as hard-to-fill positions. Staffing for bus drivers, for example, is about 80% full for the districts.

But with the omicron COVID-19 variant causing spikes in absences, it is bus drivers and substitute teachers who have spurred an all-hands-on-deck strategy, said Shawn McIntosh, GPS’ assistant superintendent for talent management. GPS Superintendent Shane McCord even spent a day filling in as a sixth-grade teacher, a position he started his educational career in.

With the persistence of the problem, however, district officials said they have had to get creative with pay and recruiting to remain competitive in the labor market.

Furthermore, officials said they expect the changing dynamics of work in America will affect their work forces and bring about changes in how they do business.

Working through a shortage

District officials said they have been able to fill their teaching spots in recent years even through the shortage. Martens, for example, said since she arrived at HUSD in 2017, the district has filled all of its teaching positions every year except one spot one year that the district held open for a teacher coming from North Carolina.

One difference she noted now, though, is the number of midyear resignations, sitting about 20 certified positions by late January.

“I’d say about half a dozen of those 20 people decided they couldn’t handle the stress, the pressure, the anxiety of the job anymore,” she said. “So, they were taking a break. Some left education all together. I think the labor shortage opened up doors for them that they might not have considered [before].”

And Martens said it has been tougher to fill those positions, too, with fewer people applying. She said the district has hired some December 2021 graduates, but even getting fingerprint clearance for them can be tough with the Department of Public Safety backlogged.

Omricron also wreaked havoc, spiking absences, and substitute teachers are in short supply, officials said. New cases in Arizona reached as 26,255 on Jan. 10.

Substitutes fill rates for teacher absences in Gilbert Public Schools ranged from 91%-94% from 2018-19 to 2020-21, but thus far this year school, it has been at 75%, according to district data.

That can mean teachers working “6/5,” meaning all six periods of a school day as opposed to the regular five with one prep hour, McIntosh said.

“Most teachers value that prep period of time,” he said. “And if you don’t have enough teachers and everybody’s teaching six-fifths, we’re paying you, but now you have to do that planning period outside of the day. In a typical year, we would try to avoid it.”

McIntosh praised the teachers for being “fantastic,” but Chandler Education Association President Katie Nash said that effort does come at a cost.

“People were covering for each other multiple times a week, and what results is that even if you stayed healthly, you were exhausted and coming down with something else that wasn’t COVID,” she said. “The weekends aren’t long enough to recover. These first weeks back [from winter break] were rough. I’m not going to sugar coat, and I don’t think anyone at the district would sugar coat it either.”

Bus driver shortages have been ongoing for several years, as well, but are particularly pervasive now, officials said, and only made worse by COVID-19 absences.

“They have everybody’s help,” McIntosh said. “Anybody with a [Commercial Driver’s License] is driving, so the director, the assistant director and also the mechanics and such.”

McIntosh said the result has been minimal disruption with students getting to school, and the district is able to notify parents through a message system when routes are running late.

Getting creative

Last school year, with schools anticipating increased staff absences because of COVID-19. HUSD hired permanent substitutes for its campuses so someone was always available to fill in, and

GPS similarly started a “flex subs” program with one assigned to each elementary school campus and two at the secondary schools, McIntosh said. This year, it increased that allotment by one more at each campus.

In the mornings, McIntosh said the district office is like command central, where if one campus does not need a flex sub, that person can be sent to another campus to fill in. Thereafter comes the use of traditional substitute teachers, and then using instructional coordinators or coaches in the classroom.

The last resort is splitting an uncovered classroom for the day among a couple teachers, McIntosh said.

“The key part for us is that through all of this, we have qualified teachers, whether they be the teacher or substitute teacher, in front of our students at all times, and that we’ve managed to achieve this,” said Dawn Antestenis, GPS marketing and communications director.

McIntosh said GPS has had to get creative in other ways to fill positions. Principals have approached parents who are frequently on campus about jobs. Classified staff members have been offered CDL training so they can fill in as bus drivers.

The district also has “piggybacked” two jobs together, like bus driving and nutrition services, so that an employee can work enough hours to qualify for full-time status where he or she can get benefits, McIntosh said. Retention and competing against the private sector has also been an issue, officials said.

“I got lunch today and they had a sign saying $17 an hour,” Martens said. “And so I was like, ‘oh, I’ll just casually look at [recruiting website] Indeed and see what’s out there in the Gilbert area. I looked at probably 60 positions, and out of the 60 that I looked at of the hourly, only two are paying less than $15 an hour. All the rest are paying $15 or more. So that’s a struggle in the big picture.”

The districts have responded with pay increases or bonuses to remain competitive. HUSD, for example, increased its classified pay schedule midyear, gave bus drivers a $2 per increase and started offering referral bonuses for drivers.

It also increased substitute teacher pay on Mondays and Fridays, days when fill rates are especially low, Martens said.

McIntosh has a similar proposal on substitute pay going before the board in late February. It previously increased pay for daily substitutes from $100 to $125 per day and for long-term subs from $125 to $145 per day.

Into the future

Nash, who also is a teacher at Chandler High School, said she hoped there was minimal impact to students. She said it felt like by the end of the month things were returning to “COVID normal”—a higher rate of absence from staff than in a typical week before the coronavirus pandemic, but considered more normal in the context of the past 22 months.

“I think we have weathered the storm temporarily,” Nash said. “The hard part is that people don’t forget this. It takes a long time to recover from missing your prep as teachers, once you are behind you can’t easily recover.”

Martens said she believes there is a long-term component to these problems as she hears stories of workers looking for more flexibility, like work from home, from their jobs.

“I see that impacting us in the long term when we think about labor and the way we work,” she said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way in education.”

Martens said benefits are one area where HUSD can work to make the jobs more attractive. The district is looking to become self-funded on insurance, Martens said, which would give them more control over premiums and perhaps a chance to make new employees eligible for benefits sooner. She also said she would like to see educational incentives for professional development or perhaps tuition reimbursement

McIntosh said the teacher shortage has prompted the district to get creative again in another way—GPS is putting together its own teacher preparation program to certify teachers. If the state approves it, it will be only the third district in Arizona to offer one.

Under the program, instead of teaching in the day and doing coursework through a college at night, the teacher candidates, all with an assigned mentor, would do coursework around the GPS calendar: once a month instead of classes, and some during breaks. McIntosh said GPS sees it as a way to get the best flex subs to become fully-certified teachers.

“We’re really excited about that,” he said. “It’s like the biggest thing that I think will be helpful for teachers.”

Martens said education needs people who want to be in the field.

“We’ve got a lot of barriers that we have to work through to continue to make us attractive in the bigger picture,” she said. “And really it’s about, I think, the passion that people have for education, what gets them here and keeps them here more than anything else.”

Alexa D'Angelo contributed to this report.
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.