The average day in a K-12 school has little margin for error; educators have perfected the art of stretching resources. Yet the typical day rarely goes as planned. Staff absences are on the rise this year, and for each person who is out, others are asked to stretch themselves to make it work.
“We have staff who are consistently giving up prep periods to cover for absences, absorbing additional classes, and taking on higher caseloads,” shared one special education director who noted the extra strain staff are experiencing this year.
Research on school staff absences in the past has focused primarily on the impact on students, and the facts are clear that students suffer setbacks when facing chronic staff absences. These absences have been shown to be more prevalent in low income schools, a scary prospect when compounded with the other areas of disparate impact through the pandemic seen in reduced educational progress and increased mental health challenges in low income schools.
But a newer focus is emerging on the impact these absences are having on colleagues working in the school. This is an essential area to address before we reach a situation where the absence or resignation of some leads to the burnout of those who are asked to cover the gaps.
Absence rates among teachers have historically tracked high, at 5 percent relative to a 3 percent absence rate for the U.S. workforce and a 2.3 percent absence rate for other public sector workers. Throughout the pandemic, staff absences have spiked, at times leading schools to close or temporarily shift to remote learning because they cannot secure sufficient staff to cover the buildings.
Among school staff there is a culture of covering for each other—when there’s not enough, everyone gives a little bit more. So, it’s not surprising that in a recent Tyton Partners survey of educators asking what resources would be most valuable in addressing the current challenges they are facing, each of the top three responses related to hiring more people. Respondents said that having more teachers, additional counselors, and/or additional paraprofessionals or teacher aids at their school were their top priorities.
Why is this happening?
In many cases, schools have been unable to quickly fill the gaps created by absences to the extent that they were able to in past years. With pervasive staffing shortages it has become too difficult to find people willing and able to jump in and cover the work.
A staffing crisis is impacting most employment sectors across the country, and schools are especially feeling it. The pandemic has only exacerbated what was already a stressful occupation, leaving educators with more work hours and less support to get the work done. Labor Statistics report there are 567,000 fewer educators in America’s public schools today than there were before the pandemic, and 43 percent of jobs posted are going unfilled.
This has led some districts to attempt to solve the challenge with money. Schools are offering retention bonuses to staff members who stay through the end of the school year and pick up some of the slack created by gaps elsewhere. People are being asked to take on responsibilities that are in some cases completely outside of their own job duties. Administrators know this is a big ask, and are acknowledging it with more pay.
State-level funding is also being activated in an effort to support schools in addressing the challenge. Legislators in Oregon, for example, authorized a plan to allocate $78 million to districts in the state to use for staff recruitment and retention bonuses.
But is more pay really what staff want? Some say they would rather have lower stress and a more manageable workload. Yet in many places right now there’s no room to offer the tradeoff; there is simply not enough coverage and everyone is being asked to do more.
The ultimate goal: fully staffed schools
As staff absences rise, substitute shortages are further exacerbating the challenge. One Texas district, for example, reported that it was able to fill only 58 percent of its open substitute positions.
Mike Teng, CEO of Swing Education, which places substitutes in schools across the country, has seen firsthand the growing need in schools.
“We’ve seen a higher need for substitute staffing across the thousands of schools we work with in several states. We all want the world to just be ‘back to normal’ again, but the reality is that COVID’s impact on existing substitute teacher pools was to bring them down to zero,” Teng said. “The solution has just been doing the hard work of making it as easy and low cost as possible for candidates to get into a classroom and help make guest staff feel included and valued.”
Compounding absences is the high concentration of family and medical leaves, driven by maternity and caregiving leaves in an educator population that is 76 percent female. This is one area where schools leverage teletherapy to ensure coverage without adding burden to their own staff. Plugging in an additional teletherapy resource makes someone available in a flexible way, who can cover needs across multiple school sites and be on call when unanticipated needs arise. For the school districts we work with, requests for coverage for staff leaves of absence across teams of counselors, speech pathologists and occupational therapists has doubled versus prior years.
“Adaptability is key,” said Tarrence McGovern, director for special education in Kershaw County Schools in South Carolina. “Carefully monitor your needs, rosters, and caseloads. Don’t hesitate. Anticipate shortages and look for solutions now.”
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