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Michigan schools are closing because of staff shortages. Get used to it.

empty classroom
With fewer people in the labor force, Michigan schools are having trouble finding workers for jobs like substitute teaching and driving buses. Shutterstock)

Nov. 19: Michigan schools seek options as staff shortages and COVID cases converge

In Southfield Public Schools north of Detroit, students are in classrooms just four days a week through at least until January.

In nearby Novi, kids have to find their own way to school on Fridays because buses aren’t running those days.

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At rural Allegan County Hopkins Public Schools, south of Grand Rapids, classes were canceled for two days last week, while at huge Ann Arbor Public Schools, one or more buildings have been closed four times since fall classes began. 

Related: 

Schools across Michigan are closing or going remote for days at a time, often with little notice. And while COVID-19 infections continue to play a role in those closures, the primary problem appears to be the same one plaguing corner coffee shops and factory floors across the state: a shortage of workers.

Some districts don’t have enough bus drivers to get students to schools. Others can’t find enough teachers and substitute teachers to lead classrooms.

Bridge Michigan spoke to school leaders about staffing shortages. None was optimistic about finding a quick solution to a crisis that had been brewing for years.

 “It’s like you’re hanging by a string, and the string is losing strands,” said Adam Zemke, president of Launch Michigan, a school advocacy group. “COVID was the breaking point.”

Here’s what several had to say about the factors at play:

Are school closings increasing?

The official count of closures won’t be known until the end of the school year when districts submit reports to the Michigan Department of Education. But there’s a consensus among school leaders that closures have skyrocketed.

As of Nov. 12, the Michigan Association of School Administrators had an unofficial tally of 21 school districts that have closed at least one building  since September due to staff shortages. Most closures are for a few days. Southfield is an exception, and isn’t technically a closure. In early November, it switched to a four-day in-person schedule, with students learning from home on Fridays. The change was made in response to staff shortages.

According to Fox 2 Detroit television station, an email to Southfield parents said "stressors on families and educators includ(ing) labor shortages, increased seasonal illnesses, and food supply chain disruptions” had created “a less than optimal learning environment."

Those closings don’t include the thousands of students —  sometimes a whole classroom or building at a time — that have had to stay home because of coronavirus outbreaks.

Why is this a problem now?

School leaders who spoke to Bridge point to long-term, systemic issues. Teachers retired at a higher rate during the pandemic, while fewer college students are graduating with education degrees (a problem years before COVID hit), creating teacher shortages, particularly in some specialties such as special education. 

“The combination of early retirements, low teacher prep program enrollment and high burnout among educators choosing to leave the profession have created a perfect storm for school staffing,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

But that doesn’t explain why staff shortages are so much worse this fall than in recent years.

That reason has less to do with Michigan’s long-term teacher shortage, than with the lower-paid workers that keep schools operating. It’s a problem familiar to a lot of Michigan businesses.

There are 190,000 fewer people in the labor force in Michigan than in February 2020, before the pandemic struck the state.

That means those still in the labor force have a lot more options, and substitute teachers, bus drivers and school cafeteria workers haven’t typically made a lot of money. Before the pandemic, substitute teachers, for example, earned around $100 a day in many districts, and paraprofessionals – also known as classroom aides – earned as little as $13 an hour.

“We’ve been dealing with an educator shortage for years, but the pandemic has definitely made matters worse,” Pratt said. “Without adequate subs, it doesn’t take much of an outbreak of COVID or any other illness to make it impossible to safely staff a school building. Bus drivers, paraprofessionals, food service workers – we’re seeing shortages in all areas of education employment.”

With some fast food restaurants now offering pay of $15 an hour, school jobs had less appeal.

Is a few days out of school a big deal?

If a restaurant can’t find enough cooks and wait staff, it may lock the doors a few hours earlier than in the past or close on Mondays, and the impact in the community as a whole is relatively minor. But when the local elementary school can’t operate buses because drivers have left to earn more money driving for Fed-Ex, there’s a huge ripple effect, said Rob Fowler, CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

Fowler said he often hears from businesses that are hamstrung by workers staying home because of school closures.

“If there’s a shortage of bus drivers or whatever, it’s disruptive to employees, which is disruptive to businesses,” Fowler said. “I’ve never seen it this way, where every industry everywhere” is short of employees.

The academic impact of a few days out of classrooms may be fairly minor for students who, after last school year, are accustomed to learning remotely. But the impact can be significant for special education students and their families.

School closures are “absolutely horrific when it comes to my son with special needs,” said Jess Ronne, the mother of a 17-year-old with severe disabilities. Her son, Luke, was out of class more days than he was in during September and October because of multiple incidents of close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and the school not having staff to work with him.

“He’s not capable of doing virtual (learning), so basically he’s not educated” when he’s out of school, Ronne said. “My husband and I worked frantically to change our work schedules (but) I don’t have the time to educate him, I’m working, I‘m trying to provide a living for our family.”

What’s the solution?

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed financial incentives to both recruit and retain teachers. Among those incentives are service scholarships and loan forgiveness for teachers who commit to staying in their school district for a certain number of years.

State Superintendent Michael Rice laid out similar recommendations this month to the state Board of Education that would cost $300 million to $500 million over five years. Rice’s plan would include tuition reimbursement for college students in education programs.

Launch Michigan has its own plan to address the state’s teacher shortage, which includes creating ways for paraprofessionals to transition to become teachers.

Launch Michigan acknowledges that it could take “years, if not decades” to eliminate teacher shortages. And none of the plans address the current critical shortages of non-teacher staff, such as bus drivers

What do we do now? Are there any short-term answers?

The only quick fix to staffing shortages is for school districts to open up their checkbooks, and some are doing it.

Mona Shores Public Schools, south of Muskegon, is offering a $2,500 signing bonus for new bus drivers and a $500 finders fee for district employees who recommend a new driver. In Oakland County, Huron Valley Schools is offering a $600 signing bonus for new bus drivers.

But even financial incentive programs have drawbacks – school officials say big signing bonuses in one school district sometimes lure workers from neighboring schools, just shuffling staff shortages across district lines.

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Lansing Public Schools took a different approach. Short of drivers for about 30 bus routes, the district offered families unlimited public bus passes or a monthly $25 gas card to help get kids to school.

Bonuses and gas cards are one-time expenses, and districts can dip into federal COVID money to pay for them, said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. Raising salaries significantly, though, is problematic, because COVID money won’t last forever.

This fall, the Lamphere Schools district in Madison Heights scrambled to raise its paraprofessional wages from $13.68 an hour to $18.70, for positions that only require a high school diploma, in essence competing with Subway and McDonald’s for workers.

There’s a limit to how much schools can compete on wages, said SBAM’s Fowler. Business owners “are raising (wages) to compete for labor,” he said. “That’s a tool we (in the private sector) have, we can raise prices to compete with pay and benefits. Those are not tools our schools can use,” because schools can’t “raise prices” for their services like a restaurant can.

MEA’s Pratt and Spadafore of the superintendent and administrator association didn’t offer any easy solutions. “This problem has been long in coming and there isn’t a single quick fix,” Pratt said. 

“The pandemic has exposed the crisis in staffing we knew was there,” Spadafore said. “We need to find ways to entice people into education.”

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