DES MOINES — Worker shortages are impacting nearly every workforce sector, and schools have not been immune, education officials say.
Teacher shortages — especially among substitute teachers — are forcing schools across Iowa to make adjustments in order to have enough staff in the building to run a typical school day.
In some extreme cases, districts have had to cancel school days because not enough staff has been available.
The Rudd-Rockford-Marble Rock Community School District in northern Iowa, for example, was forced to cancel school Monday and Tuesday due to an inability to find substitute teachers. The two days will be made up at the end of the school year.
“It is trying times,” the district’s secondary principal, Nick Johnson, said.
Iowa’s workforce in the category “educational services” is down 5.4% from pre-pandemic levels, which puts the number of Iowa’s education workers at its lowest point in almost a decade, according to state workforce data.
“The situation in Iowa with teacher, substitutes and other staff shortages is dire,” Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, a union that represents public school teachers and other education workers across the state, said in a statement. “Chronic underfunding, overcrowded classrooms, and disrespect for the professionals who work with our children every day have driven what we are seeing today. The Iowa State Education Association has been warning about this vortex for years and we know that fixing it will take a concerted effort by all stakeholders.”
The possible reasons for shortages of teachers, substitutes and support staff are many, school officials said. According to school officials:
- Enrollment in college education programs is down over the past decade, leading to a shortage of new teachers.
- The pandemic created for many workers a need for more flexible working arrangements.
- Some workers have concerns about being exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace, especially in schools, where social distancing is virtually impossible. And, in Iowa, a new state law says schools cannot require face masks for staff and students. Although that law has been temporarily paused while it is tried in the courts.
- There seems to be more competition in the job market for para-educator wages, which are often the $15 per hour range.
- A general shortage of available workers across the country.
Jean Hessburg, public relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association, said the organization’s staff hears of all these issues across the state.
“We know most schools are having trouble finding subs. We know most have unfilled positions or had very few candidates to fill a position,” Hessburg said. “And we know we are hearing directly from our members about high burnout, no time in the day because they are covering classrooms for colleagues who are out sick, an increase in tension due to political complaints, and overall frustration over the lack of respect. These issues have all increased over the past two years.
“Most importantly, our educational environment affects both the professionals who work in it and the students in their care. We are in crisis. The question is how serious we are about solving it.”
Most districts have thus far been able to avoid cancelling school days, but many have been forced to get creative with staffing issues, officials said.
The Sioux City district, for example, is planning to partner with an outside employment firm that specializes in recruiting, hiring and training substitute teachers and para-educators.
Sioux City superintendent Paul Gausman said the shortage of substitute teachers in the district has risen to “crisis” level. The district needs more than 100 additional substitutes, he said.
In a district-wide survey, 98% of teachers and 89% of para-educators said they have been directly impacted or have seen the impact of the substitute teacher shortage.
“Our staff is overworked,” Gausman said.
The Waterloo school district is attempting to address its teacher shortage through creative scheduling and hiring permanent substitutes at buildings that have unfilled substitute requests. The district has also asked the state board that oversees educators’ qualifications for some leniency in employing long-term substitutes.
“The shortage has had a significant impact,” said Kingsley Botchway II, the chief officer of human resources and equity for the Waterloo school district.
The Davenport school district has attempted to address its teacher shortage by expanding its worker search beyond the traditional job postings, while staff shuffle duties and responsibilities daily in order to cover all bases.
“As a district we are being impacted by the staffing shortages that are being seen nationwide, including teachers and substitutes,” said Nicole Stroupe, a human resources specialist for the Davenport school district. “Whether we are posting on social media, by word of mouth, target recruiting on industrial professionals that could receive career technical certification through the Board of Educational Examiners, or reaching out to department heads of various colleges and universities, we are doing what we can to get the staff we need for the district.”
Abby Koch of the Mason City Globe Gazette and Caitlin Yamada of the Sioux City Journal contributed.