Staffing crisis prompts school employees to ask for support, patience

On the first day of school Benjamin E. Mays elementary school in St. Paul last year, teachers greeted returning students at with sidewalk chalk and confetti.

As public schools across Minnesota scramble to fill open positions before classes resume, union members coming back to work this fall asked families for patience, and called on school leaders to offer more incentives – financial and professional – to ease the staffing shortage.

“The working conditions in our schools have suffocated many teachers’ passion for teaching,” said Dr. Mara Borges-Gatewood, who teaches English-language learners in the White Bear Lake district. “There are just so many things being asked from us, and we can’t do them anymore.”

U.S. schools are looking to fill 300,000 positions nationwide, according to an estimate from the nation’s largest teachers’ union, the National Education Association (NEA).

It’s likely to be a rocky start to the school year for many, and Education Minnesota President Denise Specht asked for patience from parents and students.

“Take a breath and remember that the educators and staff who chose to come back this fall did so because they really care about the students and want them to succeed,” she said.

Staffing challenges hit school districts hard after the COVID-19 outbreak, but Borges-Gatewood and other school employees, speaking during a press conference today, said the issues driving workers to leave began well before the pandemic. They include unsustainable workloads, uncompetitive pay and, for hourly workers, lack of access to unemployment-insurance benefits.

Brooke Malek, a licensed school nurse in the Morris Area School District, said nurses are stretched thin across multiple school buildings, with many “leaving for better paying jobs.” Jeanne Fox, an education support professional from Osseo, said her district nickeled and dimed support staff in contract negotiations, despite piling on responsibilities – like covering for absent classroom teachers – over the last two years.

“This extra workload burnt out a lot of school support staff,” Fox said. “They’re expected to step up to the plate, but their extra effort didn’t result in more pay.”

The State of Minnesota’s projected $9.4 billion budget surplus offered lawmakers an opportunity to give school districts more funds to recruit and retain workers. But Republicans who control the Senate never took up a spending package, backed by Gov. Tim Walz and the DFL-controlled House, that would have delivered $1 billion to schools.

Lawmakers also failed to pass legislation that would extend unemployment benefits to hourly school employees in Minnesota, one of just a handful of states that bar school bus drivers, custodians, nutritional workers and others from access.

Without help from the Capitol, union members said, school districts should look for ways to collaborate with their employees to address to the staffing crisis.

Cat Briggs, a bus driver in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, said her union, SEIU Local 284, bargained for higher wages and a retention bonus. It also helped identify opportunities to merge part-time jobs – like crossing guard and bus monitor – into more attractive, full-time positions with benefits.

“We’re calling on every district in the state to make these jobs a career,” Briggs said. “Get all the jobs, including the starting wages, above poverty level.”

Education Minnesota’s think tank, the Educator Policy Innovation Center, released a report earlier this month analyzing firsthand accounts from educators about the challenges of working through the pandemic – and what changes are needed to keep more from leaving the profession.

Authors recommended giving educators more time to build relationships and collaborate within the school community, a greater say in school policies and more authentic opportunities for professional development.

“We can lighten loads; we can take stress off of people’s plate,” said Specht, president of the statewide educators’ union. “We can reach out to licensed staff who have chosen to walk away from teaching and ask them why, ask them what they need to come back.”

Comments

  1. betazeded says:

    Teachers need and deserve a 20% pay raise across the country to give them a better living and keep them from leaving their loved profession just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. The future of America starts with the education of our children and the teachers who teach them are worthy of our hire.

  2. Cannot believe that we as A Country decide that our Teachers or not worthy of increased pay to deal with all the children they encounter for 8 or more hours of the day. They deserve our Respect and Appreciation for what they do every day in and out! What is going on America! So disappointed in our Elected Group of People in charge of who get’s to survive!

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