In addition to the three Rs of education – reading, writing and arithmetic – there is a fourth: recruitment.
A chronic staff shortage is forcing officials at Downriver schools to deploy a range of tactics to attract staff, from teachers and bus drivers to teaching assistants and support staff.
It’s part of a local, state and national problem that has educators and administrators looking everywhere for workers. The COVID pandemic, an unstable labor market and pre-existing shortages of employees in key areas have combined to hamper school work schedules.
Recruiting and retaining teachers is described by Michigan’s top education official as the state’s most pressing challenge.
“We need to work to fund key teacher recruitment and retention efforts,” the state superintendent said. Michael Rice told the State Board of Education in November.
In late December, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law HB 4294, which allows uncertified school personnel — such as paraprofessionals and secretaries — to serve as substitute teachers throughout the 2021-2022 school year.
“The pandemic has been a challenge for our children, our teachers, and our parents, and our educators have gone out of their way to ensure Michigan children have a bright future,” Whitmer said. “Allowing schools to employ school staff that students know as substitute teachers will help keep school doors open and students learning in the classroom for the rest of the school year. I am committed to working with the Legislature to develop high-quality solutions to address these long-term staffing shortages so that we can ensure that every child can access a quality education.
Downstream school leaders say the worker shortage extends beyond the classroom, to all school operations. Short- and long-term approaches to easing the crisis have included pay raises, limited and scuttled programs, teacher hiring initiatives, and increased volunteerism among existing staff.
“Staffing shortages have certainly had an impact on area school districts,” Huron School District Superintendent Donovan Rowe said. “Staff shortages have stretched our replacement staff resources to the limit.”
Downstream school districts have responded with a variety of initiatives and workarounds. Among these :
• Taylor High School was closed on a Friday due to shortages. Griff Mills, superintendent of the district of 5,500 students, said the action was a “last resort”.
• Allen Park Public Schools recently increased substitute teacher salaries to $150 per day (from $90) for daily substitutes, and up to $200 for long-term substitutes (from of $100).
• Lincoln Park and the Woodhaven-Brownstown districts received state-administered grants to help students explore careers in education. The hope: to develop a kind of pool of future teachers to develop oneself.
• Districts in the region have reduced some less essential programs. Allen Park, for example, canceled some so-called elementary school “special classes” like art, music, gym, and library media to use those teachers in core curriculum classes.
• Districts have also looked to current educators and other staff to fill staffing gaps. “We are so fortunate to have caring staff with a ‘pitch in’ approach,” said school superintendent Allen Park. said Michel Darga. The district of 3,691 students purchased a transport van — much smaller than a school bus — so coaches can drive small teams to events.
• Across the region, schools are encouraging retired teachers to return to the classroom. The state’s “Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educator” campaign offers waivers and fast tracks for former educators hoping to recertify. In the spring, the Michigan Department of Education sent out tens of thousands of recruiting postcards to educators whose certificates had expired.
• Districts are also strengthening relationships and partnerships with colleges and universities to attract student teachers.
“It’s a tough situation to deal with,” Taylor’s Mills said. “We know this takes a toll on our staff. We are looking at things we can do to help our staff decompress and take some time for themselves.
To that end, he said, the district gave employees a paid day off before Thanksgiving “to show our teachers and staff that we really appreciate all the work they do.”
Allen Park’s Darga said both instructor and non-instructor paraprofessionals “step in wherever they can and our replacements are rock stars.”