School districts grapple with substitute teacher and bus driver shortages

Students and staff at Nampa School District’s Snake River Elementary got a five-day Labor Day weekend because the district was short on teachers and substitutes.

Eleven of the school’s 30 teachers were out due to illness or quarantine Thursday, leading to the school’s closure on Friday and Tuesday.

“We can’t keep up with it,” Nampa spokesperson Kathleen Tuck said of the need for substitute teachers.

Staffing shortages — especially among subs and bus drivers — have become another hurdle for Nampa as a third COVID-affected year gets underway. And Nampa’s not the only one struggling, with leaders from Coeur d’Alene to Bonneville voicing concerns to varying degrees.

Nampa was short 32 substitute teachers last week alone. Tuck hopes the number of subs accepting jobs will increase in the coming week, as they traditionally take more jobs after Labor Day. When those positions are left unfilled, principals and teachers prepping for their own classes fill vacancies.

It’s unclear whether these shortages stem from worries over exposure to COVID-19 or because of competitive wages with other employers, Tuck said.

Two weeks into the year, Caldwell schools’ substitute-fill rate is only around 40%, district spokesperson Jessica Watts said Friday.

Likewise, the number of substitute teachers in Blaine County has been a cause for concern, said Superintendent Jim Foudy. So far this school year, the district is averaging 2.5 unfilled teaching vacancies per day. On Sept. 2, that number grew to nine.

Foudy guessed that housing has fueled the staffing shortages. To fight the issue, Blaine County trustees will meet on Sept. 14 with an action item to increase pay for subs.

Coeur d’Alene School District is in a “relatively comfortable” position as the school year gets started on Tuesday, director of operations Jeff Voeller said. North Idaho’s largest school district has about 200 subs available, but concerns linger about possible issues tied to the pandemic.

‘Everyone with a pulse is driving buses’

Busing is another area of concern in Nampa, said Tuck. Every morning, the district updates the school website stating that all bus routes are running that day.

But that might not be the case for long.

The home page of Nampa School District’s website starts every morning with a message to tell patrons if all bus routes are running.

Brown Bus Company, which operates Nampa’s busing service, is so short-staffed that it’s consolidating routes to make sure everyone gets a ride.

If one or two people call in sick, some kids could be up to an hour late for school. Brown Bus Company is seeking 12 more drivers and eight bus monitors, yet the applications have slowed since school started, leaving the district desperate to find more drivers.

The shortage is also affecting athletics. Brown Bus Company has one activity driver for Nampa. Tuck said the high school games have been covered, but parents have been the primary transporters for middle school activities so far this year.

“Everyone with a pulse is driving buses,” she said.

Bus staffing hasn’t been an issue so far in Bonneville, but Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said the district knows that can change. Last school year, Bonneville suspended busing to its middle schools and high schools for two weeks while drivers quarantined.

After spending the summer fearful that the district wouldn’t be able to find drivers for all of its routes, Voeller said Coeur d’Alene has everything covered. A career fair at their bus barn and increased pay for drivers have helped, he said.

But if drivers start calling in sick, filling all routes could quickly become a struggle, Voeller said. “We were close to that a couple of times last year.”

What can they do?

Coeur d’Alene has been working on increasing pay for classified staff in order to compete with other hiring businesses. Still, the district needs seven custodians, and none have applied in the weeks leading up to the start of school, Voeller said.

Nampa raised its minimum wage to $11 an hour for classified staff. Substitutes in the district make $90 per day, a rate that increases to $105 if a sub gets called in at the last minute.

Tuck pointed out that the hourly wage isn’t as competitive as those from some other Treasure Valley employers, but the district is able to provide competitive benefits and a health care package for full-time workers.

School districts also have access to millions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds, which can be used to bump up pay for bus drivers, subs and other classified staff.

But the payouts won’t last forever, some leaders stressed.

“It would be short-sighted to use a one-time allocation for long-term ongoing expenses,” said Woolstenhulme.

Tuck agreed, saying that once the COVID relief funds disappear, school districts would have to get creative to continue higher levels of pay.

Nampa trustees meet tonight with a possible action item regarding the district’s COVID-19 mitigation policies. EdNews will have the details.

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