By Kate Dula
Pittsboro, NC – Neither the initiatives of Chatham County Schools to stem the tide of faculty and staff leaving, nor their efforts to fill the positions left behind have shown success. While administrators continue to propose more of the same ineffective strategies, the continuing shortage of teachers and staff means the children of our county are not getting the quality of education to which they are entitled. While it is important to make sure present and future CCS employees are financially compensated for their unprecedented hardships, money is not enough. A more realistic look at what is driving and keeping people away from our school system is necessary, and a commitment to relaxing stress-inducing hygiene rules must be part of the plan.
The struggle to find and keep faculty and staff has been a problem for many months.
As of the first week of January 2022, Chatham County Schools has 152 unfilled positions listed on their website*, and that’s not counting the acute shortage of substitute teachers. This is not a problem unique to Chatham County, and many school systems and other industries across the state, both public and private, have been struggling for many months to fill positions. But, what can Chatham County Schools do to address this serious staffing shortage?
At the September 2021 Board of Education Meeting, administrators described the issue as “higher than normal vacancies.” At present, 46% of Chatham County Schools job postings have been unfilled for more than 4 months (120 days), and 31 jobs have been vacant for more than 6 months (Figure 1). The median age of all CCS job postings is 112 days. The issue is not only long-term, but also widespread. All operational areas and communities within the county are affected by the lack of personnel. Vacancies include managerial positions (directors, principals, managers), teachers, classroom and clerical support, nutrition, athletics, transportation, maintenance, and more. Substitute teachers are also in seriously short supply. Though a look at job postings is a snapshot and doesn’t show exactly how many employees have been onboarded or lost in the past year, the volume and timespan of vacant positions constitutes a significant and prolonged issue.
A few efforts have been made by district administrators to attract applicants and encourage current employees, but they do not seem to be achieving the desired results. Recruitment and retention bonuses for faculty and staff have been offered, as well as increasing the pay rate for substitute teachers. At this month’s meeting, CCS administrators will be asking for approval to use short term financial resources through the federal Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief (ESSER) Fund to provide an additional $1,000 bonus to all district teachers who participated in training relating to COVID-19**. In November, the administration received board approval to temporarily waive the requirement for newly-hired instructional assistants, custodians, and nutrition assistants to serve dual roles as bus drivers. Also among the administration’s efforts are “recognizing and honoring” current employees, as well as a virtual career fair planned for March 2022. However, if these and similar strategies were working, excessive vacancies and continued loss of staff would not continue to be such a protracted issue.
In addition to the “Covid-19 Training Bonus” mentioned above, a “CCS Staffing Update” is included for this month’s board meeting. It is yet to be seen how CCS administrators will explain the information slated to be presented, but major discrepancies exist between this slide deck and the jobs listed on the Employment page of the CCS website, the source for the two figures above. As previously mentioned, 152 openings are listed online, but the CCS slide deck shows only 88. A lag in posting newly open or removing recently filled positions is quite understandable, or perhaps they aren’t counting part-time positions or dual roles, but those issues could hardly account for a difference of 64 positions. The categorization of role types presented in the slide deck differs from that of the district website as well, which makes it difficult to understand why the numbers are so different. The presentation does not include mention of any progress made regarding substitute teachers, and though one slide shows “Beginning Teacher Trends,” the presentation also does not provide data regarding how many staff members have been onboarded across all operational areas. Perhaps they were omitted because there is no progress or improvement to report.
Despite the omissions, some information can be gleaned from the data provided in the “CCS Staffing Update” presentation for January 2022. Resignations have been trending in the wrong direction (see Figure 3 below). With a dip in attrition last year, personnel loss has increased for this school year, an indicator that CCS retention efforts are either too little too late or are the wrong incentives altogether.
While it is natural to have regular vacancies in an organization the size of CCS, excessive and sustained shortages take their toll. Continuing to operate while short-staffed creates a vicious cycle, putting constant strain on the remaining employees. It has been noted at Board of Education meetings that due to lack of available substitute teachers, faculty are often obligated to cut into their own planning time to cover other classrooms. A participant in the CCS Fall 2021 Superintendent’s Listening tour said that he/she, “live[s] with an educator who is completely exhausted,” and related this to a “lack of down time due to shortages and safety protocols.” Considering North Chatham Elementary experienced two significant fires in late 2021, one of which destroyed several mobile classrooms, are maintenance personnel stretched too thin as well? Complaints from parents about inadequate busing come up again and again too. Rather than managing to retain and recruit employees effectively, Chatham County Schools continues to perpetuate burnout and attrition.
A totally different approach is necessary.
Chatham County is not the same as our neighbors, and despite recent population growth, remains mostly rural. When population density is compared to all of the counties with which Chatham shares a boundary, our county ranks the lowest in population density, at 111.9 people per square mile (see Figure 4 below). Durham and Wake Counties are more than 10 times more dense. In late December 2021, Chatham County Health Director, Mike Zelek explained to a media outlet, that vaccination rate in Chatham remains much lower than that in Orange and Durham Counties, a full 20% lower than that of Orange. The difference in choices made by residents in our county is unlikely to change. Chatham needs to differentiate its approach to teacher and staff recruitment from our neighbors, rather than continuing more of the same.
A recent CNBC article notes a “fear of contagion and hazards of in-person work are playing a role” in discouraging potential workers from entering or re-entering physical workplaces. With that in mind, perhaps Chatham County Schools administrators are not appealing to those who are most likely to apply — local residents who truly enjoy spending time among groups of people and who are not deeply worried about exposure to commonplace illnesses. Potential job applicants of this type are likely to prefer a balanced approach to risk management, and likewise are unlikely to desire spending time in a work environment where providing a sound education seemingly takes second priority to hygiene protocols.
So, what can be done?
Leaders of our public school system should change their approach and try to better understand the point of view of their potential applicant pool. What do prospective and current employees want from their employer, besides competitive compensation and a pat on the back? What burdens can be lifted from current staff, and effectively replenish the CCS workforce? What truly motivates employees?
CCS staff members who have endured the hardship of the last two years deserve to be rewarded for their resilience, but they still need relief from the pressure. A recent article, published by the American Psychological Association (APA) states, “people find challenge stressors motivating because they expect that if they put the work in, they can achieve an outcome they value. Hindrance stressors, on the other hand, feel insurmountable—no matter how hard you work, a satisfactory result is out of reach.” The hinderance stressors, which the APA defines as “red tape, lack of resources, and conflicting goals,” faced by CCS employees must be dismantled to retain and attract talent.
Hinderances should be reduced.
The compulsory covid protocols must be phased out. Employees present and future deserve to know that there is a set-in-stone point at which they will be relieved of the Sisyphean burdens of this type. CCS administration continues to claim such protocols are keeping the schools open, yet also continue to downplay the costs of their perpetuation.
Further, greater creativity must be applied to solving such difficult problems as staffing. Has any research been done regarding why substitutes are in such short supply? Substitute teacher income can be highly irregular, and therefore is not likely to be a primary occupation for those who fill the role. Perhaps potential substitutes are especially unlikely to put up with working conditions they find distasteful. Or, perhaps the time commitment or other obligations such as childcare are preventing potential substitutes from signing up. Could such conflicts be avoided by creating a half-day substitute role? Teachers who are having their planning periods taken from them, would likely be happy to have any relief they can get.
While there are many types of stakeholders who care about CCS, the ones who have the most personal, vested interest in seeing the school system succeed are parents of current students. How many parents, even ones who are frustrated with current CCS policies, would be willing to step in to volunteer? What is CCS doing to make the best use of potential volunteers?
We wouldn’t expect our favorite professional football or basketball teams to play an entire season without any substitutes on the bench, much less too few players to fill a starting roster. Our school district has been playing a man down for much too long, and people who are afraid to enter the arena are not likely to come try out for the team. Likewise, those who want to play the game, are not willing to do so if the coach is going to tie one hand behind their backs.
During recent Board of Education meetings, Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson has reiterated that his primary goal is to provide a regular routine and claims that continuing Covid protocols, including universal masking, is the only path to achieve that. How, though, can stability be maintained if the whole organization is crumbling? To overworked personnel, CCS administrators offer only impotent incentives, empty platitudes, and no hope that conditions will improve.
*147 postings are listed, but 4 of these cover multiple positions.
** See Chatham County Schools Board of Education Meeting proposed agenda, January 2022.
CCS Retention and Recruitment Initiative – Presented September 2021
Staffing Update presentation (part of Jan 2022 Board of Education meeting presentations)