A month into the school year, local school staffing struggles are hitting a fever pitch.

In a joint meeting last night between the Orange County and Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools boards and the Orange County Board of Commissioners, representatives from the two districts painted a picture of two school systems trying to stay positive and bounce back from a couple of rough years.

During the meeting, participants discussed budget concerns, racial equity measures, learning loss, mitigation strategies, and graduation rates—but a recurring theme was the difficulties in recruiting staff and filling vacancies, exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Unparalleled vacancies

Superintendents Dr. Nyah Hamlett of CHCCS and Dr. Monique Felder of OCS both expressed that, while they were happy to have children back in schools, a number of new challenges are popping up, including unprecedented staffing shortages. 

“The additional duties, with regards to safety protocols and requirements, we experienced a huge strain on our staff,” Felder said. “Our teachers are certainly feeling the strain.” 

“It is nearly impossible,” Hamlett agreed. “I probably can’t even put it into words how hard our staff is working. Being an educator was challenging before the pandemic, but now our staff is often stretched in different ways.”

Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools

Erika Newkirk, Senior Executive Director of Human Resources, answered commissioners’ questions about the staffing situation. 

Currently, there are 164 staff vacancies at CHCCS. In a typical year, CHCCS employs around 2,000 people.

“It is an all-hands-on-deck approach and we’re working as hard as we can to get these vacancies [filled],” she said. 

There are 56 certified staff vacancies at CHCCS—meaning licensed teachers, reading specialists, for instance—an increase of 33 vacancies from last year at this time, Newkirk said. She said there are 15 vacancies within staff working with children with disabilities, an increase of eight vacancies since last year.

The remaining 104 vacancies in the district were non-licensed vacancies, including custodians and receptionists, and 28 bus driver vacancies. 

Orange County Schools

Orange County Schools is facing similar struggles. Connie Brimmer, Director of Staffing and Licensure, told commissioners that turnover has increased, noting that OCS has hired 101 certified or licensed staff members so far this year, compared to hiring 83 over the course of all of last year. 

OCS had 20 classroom teacher retirements at the end of last year, as well as several teachers who have put in their retirement dates for December of this year, which is unusual, Brimmer added. The hardest teaching spots to fill are career and technical education teachers, she said.

OCS currently has 42 certified staff vacancies, 25 of which are for classroom teachers. At the same time last year, OCS had only 16 certified staff vacancies, 13 of those for classroom teachers. OCS also has vacancies for three assistant principals, which Brimmer said is rare. 

“Typically our administrative staff is set at this time of the year,” Brimmer said.

OCS is also looking for substitute teachers and bus drivers. 

Brimmer said that while OCS has around 100 substitutes in the district, only around half are available as daily substitutes because the other half is helping to fill vacancies, working as long-term subs. This means when staff needs to quarantine, it can sometimes be difficult to find a substitute. But the board instituted higher rates for subs recently.

“That has drastically helped, especially in the long-term sub situation where we have retired teachers who are willing to come back and fill in for those who are on leave of absences or in vacancy situations,” Brimmer said.

OCS has also created a stipend to incentivize daily substitute teachers and wants to create a stipend to reward teachers who cover classes during their planning periods. Like for CHCCS, finding nurses is a challenge, and many are dedicating much of their time to doing contract tracing. The district has opened six new contact tracing positions it is currently seeking to fill. 

Searching for solutions

The districts are both leaning hard on retirees to help fill some of the temporary needs. 

“Retirees have been extremely crucial and helping us to fill our vacancies across the district, whether individuals who are on leave of absence or the vacancies we just haven’t been able to fill,” Brimmer said.

Some of these shortages are addressed using CARES Act ESSER II and ESSER III funding; commissioners expressed concern over the temporary nature of that funding. 

Hamlett said CHCCS is hiring 26 support positions through a Department of Health and Human Services school COVID-19 testing grant. Among these will be 18 nursing support staff to help with contact tracing, three extra duty nurses, and COVID-19 communication specialists. 

Commissioners asked what would happen to these positions if the grant funding ran out, and how the district would recruit staff to work only one school year. 

Hamlett said some retired nurses have expressed interest. 

“We have seen quite a few applications come in so we are excited that we’re at least getting the interest,” Hamlett said “At this point, we will take what we can get, recognizing that we have weekly testing going on, the Delta variant is still very much in play. Our plan is to continue with those positions as long as they are needed.”

Some of the pandemic funding is going to recruitment. in the form of hiring bonuses, which both districts have used to attract more candidates. 

At the peak in the summer, CHCCS had about 30 bus driver vacancies and made several adjustments to bus driver pay over the summer, to no avail. The district administration and board developed an intensive bus driver recruitment plan, which cost about $495,000 and came from ESSER II funds. OCS is offering recruitment bonuses and working with an agency to hire nurses.

A commissioner expressed concern that hiring bonus money is going to new nurses, not the currently overworked staff.

“They’ve asked us to support them first and foremost with relieving them of some of those duties, so that’s where our emphasis and focus is right now,” Felder said. 

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