Teachers, bus drivers, subs in short supply for many area districts trying to bounce back

Many K-12 schools struggled to hire staff for this school year, as the number of applicants dropped locally, mirroring workforce concerns in industries across the region and the country.

Miami Valley Career Technology Center officials said they were “blessed” to eventually fill all of their positions.

“With that being said, it has been less of an applicant pool and more of an applicant puddle,” Superintendent Nick Weldy said. “And the puddle appears to be continually shrinking each year.”

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The word “challenging” was used over and over by local school officials to describe their hiring process this school year.

** Huber Heights schools said they’ve struggled to find specialists such as occupational and physical therapists.

** Dayton Public Schools and the Horizon Science charters said intervention specialists who teach special education students were tough to hire. Earlier this summer, Dayton said it needed to hire almost 30 of them. HR director David Harmon said on the eve of Wednesday’s first day of school that they still had five of those positions unfilled.

** Fairborn Superintendent Gene Lolli pointed to high-level math and science teaching positions as difficult to fill, as well as speech language pathologists.

** And nearly every school in the region said they’re still trying to hire more bus drivers — an issue that was bad two years ago and got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, as commercial warehouse and truck driving opportunities have surged locally.

Jobs, health issues

Nancy Haskell, assistant professor of economics at the University of Dayton, said one key reason for labor market shortages like these is the balance of pay rates against COVID risks.

“COVID risk remains an issue, particularly in places like schools where employees interact with large numbers of other people,” Haskell said. And in K-5 elementary schools, all of those students are unvaccinated.

While restaurants and other employers have raised wages to attract employees, pay at many school jobs is governed by multi-year union contracts. And despite COVID cases rising in schools that are petri dishes in normal years, most local K-12 school aides and food service staff work in schools that have made masks optional.

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Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said numerous factors play into the decline in school job applicants — wages, COVID risks, angry parents and employee stress.

She said she saw a high number of teachers resigning in the past year in some small suburban districts around the state. That same high turnover happened in some districts locally.

Superintendent Doug Cozad said Bellbrook-Sugarcreek schools will have more than 30 new staff members this year, compared to 19 new staffers in the previous three years combined. Cozad said Bellbrook has struggled to find bus drivers, special needs aides, and custodians.

The smaller Brookville district also said drivers and custodians were in short supply.

“We have encountered more staff turnover this year than at any time in the last 20 years,” Brookville Superintendent Tim Hopkins said of his 21 new employees.

Each school is different

Despite the struggle, Brookville was able to fill all of their positions, and they’re not alone. A Dayton Daily News survey of dozens of local schools found a group of Miami County schools that said they were able to hire everyone they needed (Piqua, Miami East and Covington), and the same was true at local Catholic high schools Alter, Carroll and Chaminade Julienne.

Milton-Union Superintendent Brad Ritchey said after last year’s uncertainty, more school districts have been hiring this year, and more employees have been willing to leave one district for another, affecting smaller districts like his.

“We have had good candidates, but our struggle has been the ripple effects of job openings at larger, more affluent districts,” Ritchey said. “Hiring there creates other openings, often at smaller, more rural districts.”

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Oakwood officials said they fit the “hiring more” profile this year, after leaving some positions open during the uncertainty of 2020-21.

“That decision has resulted in the district having almost double the number of needed hires in 2021 than in other years,” Educational Services/HR Director Allyson Couch said. “While we have pools of candidates, the total number of applicants for the certified positions is down from previous years.”

Some worried there would be an exceptional school staffing crisis this year, after some surveys showed thousands of educators considering career changes during the pandemic year.

But a RAND survey of hundreds of school leaders nationally that was released last week showed most of them did not report a mass exodus of staff.

An extra hiring challenge

Like many large, high-poverty urban school districts, Dayton Public Schools annually has trouble attracting enough applicants for all of its openings.

But this year was a special challenge. In addition to normal turnover, DPS intended to fill 113 newly created positions that are funded by millions in federal ESSER money (COVID relief aid). That list included 85 new early-grade teachers aimed at getting young students up to grade level fast.

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At Tuesday’s school board meeting, 14 hours before classes began, Harmon said he was thrilled to announce that DPS had filled every new ESSER position. The district held hiring event after hiring event this summer to get to that point.

But given the size of the DPS staff, despite 58 hires in the last seven days before school started, the district still had 50 open positions in regular jobs sprinkled across the district — five intervention specialists, 12 clerical staff, four custodians and others.

Dayton was not alone in that hiring challenge. Fairborn aimed to use ESSER money to hire 50 new teachers this year for math coaching and other intervention, and Huber Heights planned to hire about 30 tutors to work at the elementary school level.

Subs crucial, difficult

After bus drivers, the category of employee that local schools cited the most need for are substitutes — not just teachers, but sub custodians, food service workers, classroom aides and other categories.

Last year taught schools that they had to be ready for dozens of staff to be suddenly forced out for two weeks on COVID quarantine if they came into close contact with an infected person.

Federal and state quarantine guidance has softened so that if people are wearing masks, they usually don’t have to quarantine. Despite that, most schools have declined to mandate masks. That means staff shortages are likely.

Haskell, the economist, said while public sector education employment is down from pre-pandemic levels, it is still fairly early to identify meaningful trends.

“Labor shortages will become less of an issue if and when health risks decrease and we understand more about the variants and/or roll out booster vaccines,” Haskell said.

But that point is not here yet. Cropper raised a long-term concern that with fewer teachers coming out of colleges, high turnover or retirements could hurt schools. But she also raised an immediate staffing concern.

“If I’m a retired person or older person, do I want to (sub) on a bus full of children who could be carrying the delta variant?” Cropper asked.

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