Public schools face shortages as thousands of K-12 staffers quit during back-to-school season

Janitors, canteen workers and teachers all seem to have one thing in common: they are fed up.

In September, 21,700 school workers left their jobs, according to the latest government data. This includes everyone from teachers to janitors in public schools. The number of K-12 school workers fell from 7,777,100 in August to 7,755,400 in September.

To put these numbers in context, in March 2020, before the coronavirus hit the US economy, more than 8 million public school workers were employed.

According to the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, there is a nationwide shortage of 300,000 teachers and other school workers.

Schools are struggling to fill vacancies across the board, said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. “It’s every position in our schools,” he told MarketWatch.

“Supervisors and maintenance workers, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals also known as teacher assistants, front office workers, school counselors, school social workers, and then of course our classroom teachers,” he added.

“So it’s all the gamut, everybody’s fighting to fill positions across the state and across the country, and it’s all positions in our public schools,” Spar said.

Public education remains one of the least recovered sectors from the pandemic. Teachers reported high levels of stress in the early days of the pandemic, dealing with long hours, lower pay and technical difficulties related to distance learning.

Labor shortages in other service sectors also made it harder to retain schoolworkers, Spar said.

Teachers reported high levels of stress early in the pandemic as they struggled with long hours, lower pay and distance learning.

The private sector has increased benefits to attract more workers, with many raising wages and offering more lucrative benefits.

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“In some cases, the percentage of low-paying, in-person job postings promoting key benefits more than doubled from August 2019 to August 2022,” according to analysis by Indeed Hiring Lab. Those improved benefits related to health insurance, paid time off, and retirement plans, wrote AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab.

At the same time, public education at the state level has faced underfunding, resulting in all school staff being underpaid, not just teachers, Spar said. A 2020 study found schools were underfunded at $150 billion, a situation affecting as many as 30 million K-12 students.

Case in point: Many aid workers in Florida’s school districts earn “poverty wages,” according to the Florida Education Association.

Spar said the public school system is “simply unable to compete with the private sector.”

K-12 school vacancies stood at 10,771 for Florida as of August 2022. According to calculations by the Florida Education Association, these included 6,006 teachers and 4,765 assistants. A few weeks into the school year, some positions were filled, but the state still faces more than 5,000 vacancies each for teachers and support staff, Spar said.

Last month, Chalkbeat, a non-profit dedicated to reporting on developments in education, spoke to 80 teachers who have left the profession. The reasons they gave for leaving were: lack of respect and support, the need for higher pay and more flexibility in the job.

Ingrid Fouriera former teacher in branch, me. who ended her 25-year teaching career in 2022, told Chalkbeat, “Class sizes are increasing, pay and benefits have fallen, support for teachers and administrators has drastically decreased. Privatized bus, custodial and replacement programs have really taken their toll because it has eroded a sense of community.”

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“What’s keeping me up at night is how to keep schools open and running during the pandemic and staff shortages.”

Salaries for school employees vary. Kindergarten and elementary school teachers earn an average of $61,350 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This compares to $29,760 per year for janitors and cleaners and $27,170 for dining room and cafeteria workers.

It is difficult for some teachers to even afford to live in the area where they work. The Board of Education for the Milpitas Unified School District in California approved a worker housing resolution Aug. 23 that describes how difficult it is for middle-income people who work for the district to find an apartment near theirs find a job, according to KRON-TV in San Francisco and a copy of the resolution provided to MarketWatch.

The district told parents through a school communications app that it lost seven teachers last school year to living expenses and asked them to rent excess space, according to KNTV, an NBC affiliate in the Bay Area.

Such stories provide context for the vacancy rate in public education. According to separate data from the American Federation of Teachers, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 292,000 job openings in state and local government education, which includes all public K-12 and tertiary education, a record high for August.

A North Carolina school district leader told MarketWatch in August that zero applicants had applied for the six open positions in his district, and that was two weeks before the start of the school year.

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A statewide shortage of school bus drivers is also affecting students’ ability to get to school on time: 88% of school transportation professionals and education leaders surveyed said the shortage of bus drivers has limited their transportation operations, according to a recent survey by HopSkipDrive, a school transportation service.

About 94% of respondents said they have staffing shortages ranging from teachers to librarians and administrators, according to the survey. “What’s keeping me up at night is how to keep schools open and running during the pandemic and staffing shortages,” said John French, a superintendent on the survey.

The staff shortage affects all students, but some might be more vulnerable to the impact. For example, if there aren’t enough teaching assistants, it could mean there aren’t enough people to help students with special needs, Spar said.

“Teachers and staff who work in our public schools care about children and want to please children. But so often they face so many obstacles that they eventually give up and walk away,” he said.

(Emma Ockerman contributed to this story.)

See also:

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“I want them to go to bed on a full stomach”: A mother tells MarketWatch how inflation has upended her family’s mealtimes

‘The best I can do is email you’: When this Native American family ran out of high-speed data, distance education for their children was their top priority

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