Staffing shortages creating a crisis in Monroe County schools. What the data shows
Quarantines and other COVID-19-related health issues have led to a huge increase in employee absences at Monroe County schools this year, and a critically shallow labor pool has been unable to fill the gaps.
Four Monroe County school districts have canceled at least one day of school this year due to employee shortages. In Rochester, Brockport and Pittsford, it was a lack of bus drivers, while West Irondequoit canceled a day in December because of more widespread shortages.
At the same time, districts have hundreds of positions they cannot fill, especially in relatively low-paying jobs like driving buses, working in the cafeteria and assisting in classrooms, despite many offering incentives.
West Irondequoit Superintendent Aaron Johnson called the combination of sick employees and a broader labor shortage a "perfect storm," and wrote to parents that he decided to close the school for a day "rather than stretch an already paper-thin staff even further and risk a collapse."
In early November, Pittsford had 32 open bus driver positions, while Greece sought 24 drivers and 18 attendants. RCSD was short 21 drivers — and that is not counting unfilled positions for its contract bus companies, who do most of the driving.
"It's been really difficult to say the least," said Jason Valenti, a fifth-grade teacher at Rochester's Andrew Townson School 39. "I'm surprised more buildings haven't been shut down."
District data shows shortages
Data provided by nearly all local districts brings the picture into sharper focus. The Democrat and Chronicle asked each local district for employee absence data from the second week of September and the last week of October for 2019 and 2021 for comparison.
Not all districts have responded, and those that did provided information in varying formats that makes a comprehensive countywide accounting impossible. The news in each district, though, seems the same: a huge increase in the number of employees missing work, in particular for health-related reasons.
In Pittsford, the number of sick or quarantining employees in the last week of October increased 48% from 2019 to 2021, from 148 people to 219.
In Webster, teacher absences in the last week of October were actually down in 2021 compared to 2019; but paraprofessionals and clerical workers called in sick at much higher rates.
In Greece, there were 625 employee absence days in the second week of the 2021-22 school year, up from 487 in the fall of 2019.
"We're really struggling with a decline in the workforce," Greece Executive Director for Human Resources Gina Larsen said. "And we've found as the school year goes on, our absence rate is going up and our fill rate is going down."
Substitute teachers hard to find
There is a ready-made solution to the issue of absent school employees, of course: substitutes. But just as with permanent employees, the number of available substitutes has shrunk dramatically as retirees choose to stay home.
There was already a significant shortage of substitute teachers before the pandemic. Now, there often are simply none to be had.
Instead, the option of last resort (short of canceling school) has been to rifle through buildings for other available qualified adults. Often, that means reading or speech specialists, counselors or assistant principals.
Some RCSD schools in particular rely heavily on English as a Second Language teachers to educate newly arrived refugee students; teachers at those schools have complained that those specialist teachers are the first ones called for substitute duty in general education classrooms, something that Valenti, the School 39 teacher, said has worsened morale in his building.
"They get a little ticked off because they're just a glorified sub now, and they want to do their jobs," he said.
The situation has taken on additional gravity because many students across the county have returned to in-person learning this year with trauma from their long absence, leading to violence and disruptions that schools have struggled to address.
At a West Irondequoit school board meeting earlier this month, longtime teacher Wendy Boomer described an incident where Iroquois Middle School, lacking a full-time security officer, struggled to respond to a potentially dangerous incident.
"Taking a clerk or a secretary from their regular duties to act as untrained security to monitor our front door does not instill a feeling of confidence that Iroquois students and staff are truly safe," she said.
Incentives for good attendance
Some local districts have begun offering attendance incentives to employees. In Greece, all unionized employees will receive $200 in additional pay for every two-week pay period if they don't take any days off.
"We of course want our employees to stay home if they’re not feeling well," Larsen said. "We’re hoping this will make someone think – if I can make that appointment at 4 o’clock instead of 11:30, I’ll try to do that."
Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES is offering its paraprofessionals $100 if they have fewer than three absences in a four-week period. An RCSD incentive package for current and prospective bus drivers includes a bonus for good attendance.
The problem is that most of the absences are not voluntary, but rather forced by COVID quarantines for either the employee or his or her family members.
In Hilton, for instance, a 37% increase in employee absences in the last week of October 2021 compared to 2019 is driven largely by more employees taking sick leave, up 49%.
In West Irondequoit, there were 27% more sick or quarantining employees in the last week of October in 2021 compared to in 2019.
"In a normal school year teachers work sick – not with a fever or a flu, but if you have a cold, you go to work and do your job," Valenti said. "And now you can’t."
The problem will not fully ease until the pandemic ends — and even then, problems with bus driver and substitute teacher shortages will remain. Enrollment in many teacher training programs, for instance, is down markedly.
At a Dec. 14 school board meeting in Pittsford, Superintendent Michael Pero said the district was perilously close to its bare minimum number of bus drivers needed to bring all students to school.
School fiscal monitor:RCSD monitor has second job with NYC charter school group
The strategy if too many drivers were to call in sick, Pero said, would be to tell the families on the affected routes that they wouldn't have transportation that day, just as RCSD did at the start of the school year.
Instead, when that situation arose Dec. 23, the proximity to winter break plus the rising COVID infection trendline in the community caused the district to close school altogether.
Until help arrives in some form, Pero said, summarizing the greater dilemma: "You really (don't have) many great choices to make."
Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at email@example.com.