3 districts share ideas that are easing COVID staff shortages

'You have to make sure you attend to the human side of teaching and learning,' principal says.
By: | January 19, 2022
New teachers in the Umatilla School District in Oregon participate regularly in regional education network events where they work with mentors.New teachers in the Umatilla School District in Oregon participate regularly in regional education network events where they work with mentors.

“Keep the staff you have.”

Principal Zachary Robbins’ solution to COVID-era school staffing shortages might sound obvious, but for K-12 leaders it’s been easier said than done since the pandemic began.

“You have to make sure you attend to the human side of teaching and learning, and the human side of human resources,” says Robbins, principal of Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas, part of the Clark County School District. “This is a time where we need to check on people to make sure they’re OK. This is a time to be kind, thoughtful and understanding.”

Robbins takes a unique and disarming approach to keeping tabs on the well-being of his staff: He grabs a broom and dustpan and spends some time sweeping up around his school and classrooms. “There’s no other purpose than to just be out,” he says. “And it’s an opportunity for folks to share how they’re doing.”

Leaders also must be intuitive to spot when staff members are not asking for help. “It’s just like when family members don’t always say when they need things from us,” Robbins notes. “We need to pay attention and look for signs and signals that someone is suddenly communicating that they’re not OK.”

Being sensitive to the workloads of teachers who have had to cover colleagues’ classrooms during the pandemic is a crucial retention tool. Leaders should avoid the temptation to implement any new, non-essential teaching and learning initiatives, Robbins says.

First and foremost is protecting teachers’ planning and collaboration time by not assigning them extra supervision tasks outside bathrooms or other parts of the school. Teachers are only required to enter lesson plans and curriculum adjustments into the school’s computer system rather than print out binders or other documentation. “We’re not going to ask them to take what little planning time they have to do administrative things we can handle for them,” Robbins says.

And teachers and staff appreciate when administrators are working to keep schools orderly and intervening when students act out.

Finally, administrators should also be encouraging and empowering staff to help solve problems. “When you invite people to share ideas for making the community a better place for teaching and learning, people feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” Robbins says. “Then they’ll want to stay even in midst of such difficult circumstances.”

‘A greater sense of purpose’

With K-12 leaders across the nation struggling to find enough substitutes, Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana has been testing an innovative solution that ties pay to time commitment.

The district decided to leverage extra budget dollars to incentivize substitutes to work more. It offered subs an extra $100 a day if they worked an entire 15-day period just before winter break. A few took the district up on the offer and earned an additional $1,500, says Kody Tinnel, Fort Wayne’s talent acquisition and retention manager. The sliding scale offered subs who worked a full two weeks an extra $75 a day and lower amounts for those who came in on fewer days. “We still ended up with unmet needs,” Tinnel says. “Financial incentives can move the needle but there are still other factors at play, especially with subs who want flexibility because they have other obligations.”

The district has also been able to provide teachers and support staff with large than normal salary increases this year and expects to be able to do the same the next. For positions such as bus driver that are now particularly hard to fill, the district is offering $2,000 signing bonuses and $1,000 bonuses for staff members who refer someone who gets hired as a bus driver. Drivers can also earn bonuses for meeting certain performance and attendance benchmarks.

Still, competition from the private sector is exacerbating staffing shortages that schools in Indiana began struggling with before the COVID outbreak. Private companies can often offer employees higher wages and more flexibility than public school districts.

More from DA: How schools are trying to win the battle for better behavior 

This has motivated Fort Wayne’s administrators to assess school culture with tools such as climate surveys and exit interviews. The district is now gathering data about its strengths and weaknesses, with a focus on cementing a culture that encourages talented educators to stay despite COVID and other challenges. However, the nationwide “great resignation” may also offer some opportunities for school districts grappling with staffing shortages, Tinnel says.

“People who are in fields they are not finding as fulfilling or rewarding may want a greater sense of purpose in their work,” Tinnel says. “The pandemic has opened people’s minds to question if they’re on the right path and we should be bringing them into the world of education, and a second or third career that they may never have considered.”

TGIF for teachers

A policy that has been in place at the Umatilla School District in Oregon for many years has also been providing relief for staff during the pandemic, Superintendent Heidi Sipe says.

Students in the small district attend school four-and-a-half days per week, leaving Friday afternoons for lesson planning and professional development. At least once a month, teachers meet with members of the district’s data team to review individual student performance and assessments to identify children who need intervention.

Friday afternoons also provide a lot of collaboration time for staff to take on shared themes that guide cross-curricular planning, Sipe says.

“It allows them to feel like they’re not alone and that they’re part of something greater,” she says. “People can feel so isolated—once the classroom door closes, they have no interaction with adults.”

The district also has “illness” subs—full-time staff members who cover classes when teachers are out sick and participate in the Friday PD and planning sessions. “They know the routines and they know the classes,” Sipe says. “The kids know them, so we don’t have those experiences where the kids go wild because a sub is walking into the classroom.”

Each of the district’s instructional coaches is also assigned a roaming, full-time who can cover when newer educators are pulled out of classrooms for coaching sessions. These subs can also fill in elsewhere when they are not needed by the instruction coaches. “In education, a lot of first-year teachers are promised get support from instructional coaches but there are never subs, so they don’t feel like they’re getting the support.”

A final benefit of the roaming subs is that they create a homegrown pipeline and are often hired as full-time teachers, Sipe says.