To alleviate school staffing shortages — now considered a crisis by many educators and advocates — schools are being encouraged to partner with their communities, universities, state education departments and even other departments in their own school districts.
Collaborative efforts are especially important now as states, districts and schools determine how to effectively and rapidly spend funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund on staff recruitment and retention efforts, speakers advised during a Jan. 17 session on leveraging ESSER funds for the special education workforce at the Council for Exceptional Children's Convention & Expo in Orlando, Florida.
"When it comes to the education workforce, it's important to be at the table when these conversations happen," said Keane Alavi, a research assistant at the American Institutes for Research.
Alavi said he's heard that, in some cases, state education agency staff don't know about district-level staffing needs and school district leaders don't know about state-level plans for boosting the education career pipeline.
"Addressing shortages requires strong networks with shared ownership, collective action and joint accountability between the state and local levels."
Managing technical assistant consultant at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at AIR
That's why it's important for state and district level officials to share with stakeholders any changes they make to staffing solutions in their plans for ESSER's American Rescue Plan funding, he said.
Lynn Holdheide, managing technical assistance consultant at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders at AIR, said in an email that school districts alone can't solve the education staff vacancy challenges. "Addressing shortages requires strong networks with shared ownership, collective action and joint accountability between the state and local levels,” Holdheide said.
Short-term and long-term needs
The value of partnerships and collaboration for decision-making around ESSER funding was emphasized in a Dec. 16 letter to educators from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. The letter was written at a time when school systems began reporting increased staff shortages due to the omicron variant of COVID-19.
Early in the new year, workforce shortages have become so dire in some districts that schools had to close for in-person learning. The National Education Association said omicron-caused absences combined with preexisting staff shortages has turned "each school system into a precarious house of cards."
In his letter, Cardona said school systems needed to move quickly to implement short-term staffing strategies while also considering longer-term investments.
"School districts should act with urgency to keep schools open for in-person learning and ensure they do not waste this opportunity to make critical investments," wrote Cardona. His letter included examples of measures districts and states are making to attract and retain school employees, such as providing cash bonuses and incentives, giving flexibility to hire retired teachers, and adjusting school schedules to allow for more instructional planning time.
According to an analysis of 2,500 local education agencies published Thursday by Future Ed, more than half were planning to invest COVID-19 relief funds toward hiring or rewarding teachers, academic specialists, guidance counselors and other education professionals. Spending on supporting the education workforce was the highest or second-highest priority cited in each region.
Education leaders say they feel the pressure to simultaneously fill staffing vacancies immediately and to create sustainable, long-term staffing solutions, while also meeting a September 2024 deadline for obligating ESSER funds.
The FutureEd analysis, which uses data collected by Burbio, a digital company that tracks ESSER spending, shows district spending plans most commonly put resources toward recruiting, hiring, training, and rewarding teachers and counselors. Psychologists and mental health staff was the next most common area.
Investing in effective strategies
During the CEC session, Alavi and Amy Colpo, a technical assistance consultant at AIR, highlighted a new resource from AIR's Center on Great Teachers and Leaders and its Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform Center that details examples of how states and districts are putting ESSER money toward school staff, such as:
- Illinois is using ESSER funds to support retention by creating affinity groups for school staff.
- Louisiana is putting relief money toward new teacher supports, a pre-educator pathway and ongoing professional development.
- The Reynoldsburg City School District in Ohio plans to continue to address shortages through collaborative conversations and communities of practice.
The resource also highlights specific routes states and districts are taking for staffing stabilization, such as alternative routes to teacher certification, grow-your-own programs, educator preparation program and district partnerships, social and emotional supports, financial incentives and more.
My experience as a school principal right now… pic.twitter.com/ji6Dq5jHd9— Greg Moffitt (@Greg_Moffitt) January 20, 2022
Regarding special education staffing challenges, GTL has a separate toolkit to help districts find solutions that fit best with their unique characteristics.
There are some effective overall staffing strategies that rely on collaboration but require no money. Strategies such as having classroom teachers leave detailed lesson plans for substitute teachers and providing teachers with access to leadership positions can increase job satisfaction and stability, education leaders say.
Last, Colpo recommended school systems look for opportunities for return on staffing investments that benefit school employees, students and families.
"Think about ways you can invest … to give them [teachers] a lot more support, and they feel more prepared to stay," she said