In Chatham, as is the case across the country, schools are taking what would typically be seen as drastic measures to maintain student services in the face of drastic staffing shortages.
At Chatham County Schools, where the districts says there are about 115 vacancies, those measures take the form of one-time bonuses and the utilization of school principals and teachers as bus drivers and nutrition services workers.
“I think that everyone is experiencing more vacancies this year than they have in the past,” CCS Assistant Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice told the News + Record, noting that this year’s shortages follow several years of teaching shortages.
“(This year) it’s not just teachers — it’s teachers, it’s classified staff, it’s custodians, and bus drivers and school nutrition,” Blice said. “I think it’s just a sign of the times.”
With approximately 1,600 employees, the number of vacant positions make up nearly 7% of the CCS’s current workforce. There are 43 certified teaching vacancies and 42 classified positions open, numbers generated by the district’s human resources department earlier this month, including 30 instructional assistant/bus driver openings and nine custodian/bus driver positions. Additionally, the nutrition services department is about 69% staffed — down from 75% at the beginning of the year — in need of about 30 additional employees. Typically, that department has five or six vacancies, said Director of School Nutrition Services Jennifer Özkurt.
“The numbers, of course, fluctuate daily, based on new hires and resignations,” said district public information officer Nancy Wykle. “I’m not sure how we compare to other districts our size, but I suspect they are having a comparable number of openings.”
Just last week, Wake County Schools announced that it was “pausing” its summer learning program because it didn’t have enough staff, pivoting on Monday to say it would restart the program as soon as possible following complaints from teachers and parents.
On Sept. 2, the State Board of Education approved setting aside $10 million in federal COVID relief funds to provide bonuses to new and existing workers in school nutrition programs, in recognition of how many districts are losing cafeteria workers to higher-paying jobs.
“Staffing shortages in the school nutrition programs in the PSUs (public school units) are a serious problem,” Lynn Harvey, director of school nutrition and school operations at the N.C. Dept. of Public Instruction, told the board at that Sept. 2 meeting. “Some PSUs are reporting shortages of 20 to 25%.”
At the Chatham school board’s meeting last month, board members approved a retention and recruitment bonus plan for all district employees — paid for through part of the district’s $17.4 million allotted COVID-19 relief funds.
Under the plan, all full-time employees will receive a $1,250 one-time bonus and all part-time employees will receive a one-time bonus of $650. Employees who join the district between Oct. 11 and Dec. 13 and who make a “firm time commitment” for how long they’ll stay in the system will also receive a signing bonus — $1,500 for classified employees and $3,500 for certified employees.
“This will help fill vital vacancies that range from our bus drivers to instructional assistants in the classroom,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson said in a district release. “These incentives are designed to attract and retain high-quality faculty and staff in all employment areas.”
While vacancies haven’t yet technically cut into standard student services offered, they have forced the district to be creative.
Many schools are now running doubles for bus routes to serve all students who rely on buses to get to school — about 45% of the school population, Blice said. Still, such measures are made difficult when staffing shortages outside of the district create a trickle-down impact.
For example, Blice said just recently the district’s fuel supplier cut back on its services due to not having enough CDL drivers to deliver fuel. A lack of fuel — or having to pay more to get it — doesn’t make solutions such as running double routes easier.
“The level of service across the board has had to be rearranged. Now we are still absolutely teaching and learning,” Blice said. “We’re going to keep on doing that. We’re going to have to be creative on how we make it happen.”
Even with extra COVID-19 funding, Blice said finding new employees isn’t an easy task. Lower pay than in private sectors and often sparse benefits, particularly for part-time or hourly workers, has long led to school staffing shortages, national labor advocates say, and the pandemic has only emphasized such factors.
“It’s an employee’s market right now,” Özkurt said, adding that in addition to staffing challenges, the district is also struggling to maintain its food supply chain.
“Our suppliers, our manufacturers, they’re all having staff shortages, therefore, they can’t make the product, we can’t get the product, they can’t ship the products,” she said. “So it’s impacted everything, everything — and then our costs have gone up.”
Despite the challenges, the district is still serving daily hot breakfasts and lunches to students — all free under a federal extension of universal meals during the pandemic. With fewer employees, the number of meals served daily has gone up, likely due to the appeal of universal meals, Özkurt said.
Still, to make it happen, she said the department has “pleaded to the heart” of teachers, principals and administrators — all the way up to Superintendent Jackson, who’s on calendar to come out and work to serve food.
Such efforts to keep schools running smoothly under high pressure are part of the reason CCS wanted to include current employees in its one-time-bonus plan.
“Several school districts or some school districts across the state, jumped into the signing bonuses to attract new people, and they forgot about the folks who’ve been standing in the gap, per se, doing the job,” Blice said. “I count myself fortunate to be part of a school system that did not do that.”
To learn more about employment opportunities at CCS, visit: https://www.chatham.k12.nc.us/Page/5200.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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