As children return to Michigan classrooms in August and September, the school districts that serve them continue to look for ways to staff the buildings.
Whether bus driver, substitute teacher or class teacher, many districts start the year with vacancies.
In St. Joseph County, along the Michigan-Indiana border, a meeting of superintendents earlier this month revealed nearly 100 vacancies for educators.
As of Aug. 9, there were 95 job openings for teachers, teaching assistants and other positions across the county, including nine school districts with nearly 10,000 students.
Teresa Belote, superintendent of the St. Joseph County Intermediate School District, noted at an Aug. 22 meeting that the ISD is looking to fill 30 positions.
Holland Public Schools in Ottawa County, which opened Aug. 24, plans to hold a hiring event on Wednesday, Sept. 7 to fill several open positions in the county. The event will be held from 9am to 11.30am and 1pm to 4pm at the HPS administration building and will include the ‘on site’ setting.
Vacancies include teaching assistants, bus drivers, substitute teachers, substitute secretaries, and food service.
Northern Michigan school boards are working hard to avoid bus route cancellations amid a statewide shortage of bus drivers.
Charlevoix Public School Superintendent Michael Ritter sent a letter to families in late July, noting that the school board is taking action after failing to recruit enough drivers to offer a single bus ride in the 2022-23 school year.
“In an attempt to enlist nine regular bus drivers for the fall, we offered a single-ride bonus and increased base pay, which combined equaled $34 an hour for a single bus ride,” Ritter wrote. “Despite these efforts and phone calls to all current and potential drivers… we are still short of two bus drivers to be able to offer a single ride this fall.”
The result for Charlevoix students is a dual bus route consisting of two separate routes – one for middle/high school and one for elementary school – and schools that start and end at different times of the day.
Cheboygan Area Schools Superintendent Paul Clark also expressed problems with filling bus driver positions. Clark is using some school district janitors as drivers this year, according to Superintendent Matt Stevenson, as is the East Jordan Public School District.
Stevenson said that although all his driver spots are currently filled, he has concerns about the future of his driver squad.
“We’re very lucky with our current team, but we’re worried about the next generation,” he said. “At the moment we have a problem finding replacement drivers.”
At Holland Public Schools, the district is in a better position than it was last school year, but it’s not over the hill yet. At the beginning of 2021/22, HPS canceled routes on a daily basis due to driver shortages.
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This year, the county worked out a way to cover its routes, but doesn’t have much latitude if a driver drops out.
“We’re at a point where we might have to cancel routes if drivers get sick or something,” HPS Superintendent Nick Cassidy said. “We have people driving multiple routes, we will experience some delays. We are working on getting more drivers.”
Cassidy added that if he had “a cue ball” for the first day of school, it would go to the HPS transportation department. He is also asking parents to grant clemency to the district as they continue to work through the situation.
“We need parents who will show mercy to our drivers and know that we are doing everything we can to ensure transportation,” he said. “We are committed to ensuring that children have a reliable and safe way to school.”
Districts across Holland held unique recruitment events throughout the summer to attract drivers. Both West Ottawa and Fennville hosted events where potential drivers could come and test drive a bus and get more information about employment.
“I think a lot of people are scared of even thinking this would be a career move because of the size of the vehicle,” said Paul Wegmeyer, transportation director at West Ottawa. “Today’s school bus is so driver-friendly. We wanted to create an opportunity where anyone who has any thoughts (about driving a bus) can come and try it.”
More:The West Ottawa event brings a new approach to finding bus drivers
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Belote in St. Joseph told her board of education that several things are going into the fight for help and that the problem persists across the country.
“Some of the research will tell us that people don’t feel as supported and respected as they used to,” she said. “There’s a lot of politics that makes them feel disenfranchised or unappreciated.
“Of course, money is always an issue, but that wasn’t the main reason why people dropped out. It was a lack of respect, or perhaps appreciation, for the hard work; worry about children. It weighs on them when they worry about not having food or a home or family support.”
The teacher shortage has been a topic of discussion in education for several years and has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michigan schools lost a total of 721 teachers in the fall of 2020 — shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a 2021 Michigan State University report. The 0.9 percent drop in active teachers marked the third-biggest drop in the past decade.
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Nationwide initiatives are being set up to counteract the shortage of teachers. Holland earlier this year announced a partnership with Hope College to launch a teacher preparation program to speed up the path to an educational degree for prospective teachers.
Michigan’s budget for fiscal year 2022-23 also includes funding for several teacher-focused initiatives. The budget includes $25 million to offset tuition fees of up to $10,000 each for students earning their first teacher certification for teaching in public or private schools.
It also funds $9,600 per semester scholarships for student teachers and “grow-your-own” programs that help districts prepare auxiliaries to become educators.
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