ARPA can stem the teacher shortage and keep schools open
School is a place where childhood happens. It’s not only where children learn basic skills, but where they're challenged and inspired. COVID-19 and the state’s legacy of inadequate and inequitable funding has upended school as a foundational public service that families depend on. Every day, school administrators in Ohio are making tough decisions about whether to close their doors and for how long. Surging omicron cases and an unprecedented teacher shortage are forcing administrators to be substitute teachers, and spreading staff members across multiple roles. Bus mechanics are driving kids to school. Bus drivers fill in as security guards. Teachers are mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. They are taking on multiple classes, acting as counselors, nurses, and support for their students due to widespread staff shortages. They are grappling with virtual teaching woes and declining mental health. Simply put, our educators are burned out and need our support.
Through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), federal policymakers provide school districts with additional resources they need to reopen safely. Those funds, when properly used, can be a huge help for districts, as I detailed in a previous blog. ARPA funds can also be used to hire more school staff and properly support current staff so they don’t leave. But long before COVID hit, many policymakers neglected public schools, siphoning away their funding for tax giveaways for corporations and undercutting them with schemes that send public money to private schools and poor-performing charters. COVID has especially hammered school districts in communities that can’t raise enough money through local property taxes – especially in big cities, where Black, brown and economically-disadvantaged students are more likely to live. Schools in these communities often have fewer resources for COVID mitigation efforts like proper ventilation.
For parents eager to have children back in the classroom, teacher and staff shortages in Ohio are a growing concern. Some of the shortage is due to the surging omicron variant, but some is due to fewer people choosing to pursue teaching as a profession as well as teachers leaving the career altogether – discouraged by the public’s growing hostility under challenging work conditions. Districts are also having difficulty in hiring and retaining substitute teachers. The substitute ranks are dwindling along with interest in teaching as a profession, but also because substitutes are paid low starting salaries. In this blog, I look at what’s happening in several districts around the state and how public policy interventions can help.
Dayton Public Schools and Cincinnati Public Schools: Illness-related staff shortages
Earlier this month Dayton Public Schools moved to full-remote learning for a week due to COVID-related staffing shortages. The district also cancelled all the week’s athletic, to ensure that illness does not continue to spread and cause further delays in returning to school.
Cincinnati Public Schools have been hit hard by staff shortages and school closings. On January 6th786 employees called in sick and 1,475 students were out sick and in quarantine. In the same week, 62 school bus drivers filled in for non-teaching related positions, such as security guards. Twenty-three school nurses were out due to illness and the district had to rely on 30 temporary employees and parent volunteers to provide students with lunch.
Columbus City Schools: Transportation issues and staff shortages
Columbus City Schools have been periodically closing throughout the start of the school year. The district has had the largest amount of school closings in Ohio. Recently, the district closed 24 schools due to staffing shortages and lack of transportation. The situation was so severe that the district waived remote learning and closed school completely due to lack of capacity for instruction. They have since reopened, and administrators are taking the situation on a week-by-week basis. Currently, the district has 335 new student cases of COVID-19, bringing the cumulative student total to 1,941. This week the district saw 143 new staff cases, which is affecting the ability to fill classrooms. Superintendent of Columbus City Schools Dr. Talisa Dixon stated in a recent article that she would step back into the classroom herself if necessary.
Reynoldsburg City Schools: Alternate school and busing schedules
The Reynoldsburg City School District adopted an alternative method of schooling and transportation to mitigate the effects of COVID-induced staffing shortages. The plan will be adopted on a week-to-week basis. The most recent plan involved having students enrolled in high school and preschool learn remotely while those enrolled in K-8 learn in person.
Hamilton County Schools: Critical staffing issues
Hamilton County Schools reached what the district called a “critical level” when 170 staff members were out due to illness, forcing it to cancel classes. The district said staffing classrooms is becoming an ongoing problem.
Black River Local Schools in Medina County: Educators wearing many hats
Rural districts in Ohio are also suffering due to widespread staff shortages. Chris Clark, superintendent of Black River Local Schools, which spans Medina, Lorain, and Ashland Counties in Northeast Ohio, said administrators and other staffers have to wear many hats. For instance, in addition to his role as superintendent, he is also serving as head of maintenance for the district. Superintendent Clark also said he is having trouble hiring qualified teachers and substitutes due to the lack of interest in small, rural districts.
Expand SB 1: As an effort to aid in the teacher shortage across the state, Gov. Mike DeWine signed legislation (SB 1), which allows school districts to hire substitute teachers who do not hold a post-secondary degree for the rest of the school year. This legislation can open the substitute pool for teaching positions so schools can stay open. Lawmakers should phase in this legislation beyond the current school year to avoid this crisis continuing in years to come.
Use ARPA wisely: The Biden administration also plans to set aside $9 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to address the teacher shortage nationwide. School districts in Ohio can add that funding to the $4.4 billion the state is already receiving in ARPA dollars to address the teacher and staff shortages. Funds can be used to purchase more buses and hire more transportation staff; adopt more COVID-19 safety measures; and raise the base salary of teachers in the state to attract more people, including substitute teachers. State policymakers along with local school districts can also use ARPA dollars to entice potential substitute teachers. For example, in Akron, the district is offering a $40-60 daily pay increase for substitutes. In Canton, the district is offering substitutes pay rates on par with starting rates for full-time employees.
Districts are also reporting having trouble filling other staff positions such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers, maintenance staff and recess monitors. ARPA dollars could be used for widespread hiring in these positions. Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro stated that the state has only used 14% of the current available federal funds, urging policymakers to use the funding to hire more teachers and provide support for current teachers and staff to address the shortage.
Today, many of the same people who drained resources from our public schools for their own gain are seizing the opportunity to pit parents against teachers and school administrators – aiming to further undercut public education. We can use ARPA dollars to show how public funding can help get kids back in the classroom. We can help keep schools open by monitoring ARPA dollars coming into our districts and by encouraging administrators to use the funds to address staff shortages.
Most school districts post details of their ARPA plans on their websites. Click here for highlights from Ohio’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief ARP Plans. Please be on the lookout for a webinar with Policy Matters staff, educators, administrators, parents, community stakeholders and legislators for an open community conversation on ARPA funding and how it is being used in Ohio’s schools.
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