For months, the economy has been rattled by labor shortages and supply chain shocks slowing the delivery of goods around the world. As schools reopen under the shadow of a worsening coronavirus pandemic, they are being squeezed by both — facing shortages of bus drivers, substitute teachers, computers, even ketchup packets and dry-erase markers.
The irony, administrators say, is that many school districts are unusually flush with cash from pandemic stimulus funds, but they are struggling to find staffers and supplies. It shows how money alone isn’t solving schools’ needs as they try to return to normal.
Superintendents said they were prepared for a rocky start to the new school year but were caught off guard by how directly economic disruptions, such as higher prices and fewer available workers, are colliding in schools.
“There’s a labor and inventory shortage at the same time we’re increasing enrollment and hiring,” said Aaron Bass, chief executive of EastSide. “We’ve been looking like crazy for everybody you can think of: janitors, cafeteria workers, psychologists, counselors, bus drivers. Even if you have all the money in the world, you can’t get what you need.”
Instead, he said, he’s funneling his transportation budget to students’ families, offering them a stipend for shuttling their kids to and from school. So far, parents of roughly 155 of the school’s about 500 students have signed up.
“I wish I could use that money for buses, but I can’t because we don’t have drivers,” Bass said. “It’s one more economic ripple from the pandemic.”
The hiring challenge, economists and school administrators say, is twofold: Many schools are adding more janitors, teachers, school nurses and bus drivers to accommodate smaller and more socially distant groups of students. At the same time, many of those workers are in high demand in other — often higher-paying — industries.
The job market picked up strength over the summer as the economy reopened, adding more than 1.8 million jobs in the last two months, while the jobless rate in July declined to 5.4 percent. But many sectors are still having trouble finding workers, some of whom are reevaluating their tolerance for low-paid, high-contact work amid suddenly more competitive pay options in other industries.
Many of the country’s public schools, experts say, are better-positioned to serve their students than they were last year. They’ve had time to think through pandemic-related protocols and have received nearly $200 billion in federal aid during the pandemic. But even with extra money in their budgets, the schools are running up against many of the same challenges as other employers around the country.
“Schools have the funds to provide more services, but now they’re having to figure out how to
the people and supplies they need to do that,” said Kim Rueben, a fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “Every aspect of what’s going in our economy — whether that’s a shortage of building materials or boats stuck in the Suez Canal — is trickling down in some way.”
Administrators say a nationwide shortage of bus drivers is among their most pressing concerns this fall, particularly as many schools reopen for in-person learning for the first time in over a year. Many districts say they have twice as many vacancies as usual because of fundamental shifts in the economy, including a rise in online shopping that has led trucking companies and carriers like UPS and FedEx to add tens of thousands of commercial drivers to their ranks to keep up with ballooning demand.
Washoe County School District in Nevada is offering $2,000 bonuses to new bus drivers, while Montgomery County Public Schools is enlisting mechanics, supervisors and other employees to pick up routes as it races to hire 100 new drivers before school opens at the end of the month.
“There’s always a fair amount of turnover, but it’s worse this year because we got behind the curve during covid,” said Todd Watkins, director of transportation for the Maryland school district. “We offer great benefits, but there can be disadvantages to this job: You work a split shift so you don’t get eight hours a day. You don’t have good summer employment. So there are a fair amount of people who think the grass is greener someplace else.”
The ongoing pandemic has also affected the need for more buses and drivers in other ways. Akron Public Schools in Ohio, for example, is reducing the capacity of its buses to promote social distancing. Students are being seated two to a bench seat instead of three, which means a standard bus now transports 48 children instead of 72.
“I have to make up for that by putting more buses on the road,” said William Andexler, the district’s transportation coordinator. “But I can’t do that if we don’t have drivers.”
Andexler has cut the number of daily routes from 80 to 70 and is consolidating stops where he can, but he is still short 15 bus drivers and 50 van operators. The district, he said, is also struggling to keep up with rising fuel prices. The price of diesel has gone up about 35 percent in the past year, according to AAA. Andexler said the change amounts to an extra $100,000 in costs for the school year.
“Prices of everything — shipping, food, gas — are going up and all of that takes money out of our classrooms,” he said. “Yes, it hurts our families, but we unfortunately don’t have a choice.”
The dearth of workers — combined with manufacturing hiccups and shipping delays — is also complicating the production of school supplies and backpacks. Bill Firnberg, owner and general manager of Teacher Direct, a supplier in Birmingham, Ala., says he has more than 2,000 purchases on back-order, including chalk, plastic envelopes and wooden block sets. Shipping costs have risen about 7 percent in the last year, he said, and short-staffed manufacturers are prioritizing certain items, such as crayons, leading to delays for watercolors and dry-erase markers.
“If it’s coming from China, it’s one big waiting game,” he said.
Even once orders arrive, Firnberg said he is struggling to hire enough workers to keep his 60,000-square-foot facility running during the busy season. The warehouse doesn’t have air conditioning, which makes it a tough sell during the summer. Most of the year, he tries to mail orders the same day he receives them, but he said he’s running about a week behind this back-to-school season.
“I’m fighting to find people so we can get these orders out,” said Firnberg, who’s in the warehouse from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days. “It has just been the perfect storm. That’s the only way I can put it. Everyone is overworked and having to do more.”
Orange County Public Schools in Orlando is facing a three-month wait for new office computers, according to the system’s chief operations officer, Roberto Pacheco. Ketchup packets are in such high demand, given the surge of fast food and delivery orders during the pandemic, that the district is stocking up on alternate condiments such as ranch dressing and hot sauce.
“Like everyone else, we’re dealing with the same shortages out there,” Pacheco said. “We’re adjusting however we can.”
Finding enough counselors, social workers and home liaisons has become a challenge for the Educational Service Center of Lorain County in Ohio, which, like many other districts, is using federal stimulus money to create new “wraparound services” to offer behavioral, social and academic support for students and their families. Also in short supply are substitute teachers, many of whom are retired employees wary of being exposed to the coronavirus in the classroom.
“Given the delta variant, they’re saying, ‘I don’t feel comfortable. Take me off the list,'" said Superintendent Franco Gallo.
An ongoing shortage of bus drivers, he said, has become progressively worse during the pandemic. School buses are having to pick up children in shifts, and field trips have become next to impossible.
“I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before,” he said. “Sometimes, if they’re really short-staffed — like if a bus driver calls out in the morning — schools are sending messages like, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to be able to pick up kids today.’”
Nichole Britt, who lives in Albuquerque, received an email late Tuesday, the day before her son was set to start sixth grade, informing her that there would be no bus service because of a driver shortage. She, her husband and her mother scrambled to coordinate pickup and drop-off plans for the week.
“I’m having to take some time off work and my husband is arranging to work from home in the afternoons so he can pick up,” said Britt, 44, a grant writer whose family moved from Idaho to New Mexico in the spring. “We’re starting a new school year in a new school in a new state, and now here’s one more thing that wasn’t on our radar before.”