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Staff shortages hobble NC schools' pandemic recovery as teachers quit and subs are scarce

Carrie Tulbert, principal of Iredell-Statesville's Oakwood Middle School, fills in as a bus driver because of staff shortages.
Courtesy of Carrie Tulbert
Carrie Tulbert, principal of Iredell-Statesville's Oakwood Middle School, fills in as a bus driver because of staff shortages.

This was supposed to be the year of pandemic recovery, with students returning to North Carolina classrooms and millions of dollars in federal aid available to schools.

The kids are back, but the sense of normality is not.

Teachers are quitting in what one Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools official calls staggering numbers. Substitutes can't be found. Just getting kids to school requires elaborate strategies to find drivers.

"Right now what educators are being asked to do is do normal educational things in a very abnormal world," said Carrie Tulbert, principal of Iredell-Statesville’s Oakwood Middle School.

The COVID-19 delta variant dashed hopes of easing back to a pre-pandemic world. It created new demands for classroom safety strategies while exacerbating national labor shortages.

"I’ve never had so few candidates apply for my open teacher positions as I have had this past summer and fall," said Tulbert.

Schools in triage mode

Tulbert is on the board of the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association, which recently identified staff shortages as the biggest issue facing school administrators this year. The group says schools are in “triage mode” now.

Oakwood Middle School counselor Paula Huffman dons a hairnet to work a shift filling in on the cafeteria line.
Courtesy of Carrie Tulbert
Oakwood Middle School counselor Paula Huffman dons a hairnet to work a shift filling in on the cafeteria line.

Administrators, counselors and teachers are often forced to fill gaps, which puts them further behind on their own work. Tulbert says her assistant principal covers classes when there’s not a teacher available. A counselor recently took a shift serving lunches.

As for Tulbert, "I typically am driving a bus two afternoons a week just because we have a bus driver shortage."

Billie Berry, the assistant superintendent who’s in charge of human resources for Iredell-Statesville Schools, says the challenges are not unique to his district. He notes that in Massachusetts the National Guard has been called in to drive buses.

"Even though one would think last year was tougher than this year," Berry said, "I’ve had a number of principals tell me this has been the toughest start to school."

Pandemic stress fuels vacancies

Among the national challenges is a shortage of special education teachers. The pandemic has disrupted learning for students with special needs even more than most. In some cases, it has increased the risks for teachers whose students can’t wear masks or be expected to observe safe distancing.

CMS Chief Human Resource Officer Christine Pejot
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
CMS Chief Human Resource Officer Christine Pejot

And Berry notes there’s extra work involved in planning and documenting special education strategies: "You’re dealing with just lots and lots of paperwork with maintaining an individualized education program for each student. It does become very cumbersome for the teachers."

Berry’s counterpart in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Human Resources Chief Christine Pejot, is blunt about the exodus of teachers: "I would say that it’s alarming."

In the first few weeks of this school year, her staff has processed just over 500 teacher resignations and retirements. "That's a staggering number," said Pejot.

For the same time last year, when most CMS teachers were working remotely, there were 300 such departures. The year before that, pre-pandemic, it was 169.

Missing teachers, no subs, extra duties

Jana Johnson is one of the CMS teachers who’s sticking it out. She teaches social studies in the International Baccalaureate program at North Mecklenburg High. She says she’s frequently tapped to cover a class during her planning period.

There are also extra supervisory duties, like checking bathrooms and signing in students who are late to class. She and other educators around the region say fights and behavior problems have escalated this year as students returned from a year or more away. That makes adult supervision essential in common areas.

Jana Johnson
Jana Johnson

"So there are times when I’m scheduled to both cover a class, be at a tardy table and do two bathroom sweeps all in the same hour, when obviously I can only be in one place at a time," she said.

CMS has a substitute pool, but there aren’t enough to cover vacancies, leaves and teachers who are sick or quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure. Officials here and elsewhere say subs tend to be retired educators who are old enough to be at high risk from COVID-19. Many are opting out while the delta variant runs its course.

Johnson and a colleague are teaching a new personal finance course required by the state. This is the first year it’s being offered, which means they need time to plan lessons. But a free planning period has become a rarity.

"It’s quite taxing," she said, "because there’s not time to call parents or make copies or grade papers or make lesson plans."

Then there’s the physical space. North Meck has about 2,100 students in aging buildings. CMS has federal money to improve indoor air quality, but a shortage of HVAC technicians is slowing that work. So Johnson asked to move into a mobile classroom, which has better ventilation but less space than her old room.

At one point she had 41 students assigned to her biggest class. And in a pinch, when no one can cover for a missing teacher, the students are divvied up and some report to Johnson’s trailer.

"So I have kids in chairs and kids pulled up two to a desk and kids at my desk and kids all over the place in my larger classes," she said.

On one of her most crowded days, Johnson photographed students packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. The next day, she said, she heard that two students who were in that crowd had been diagnosed with COVID-19. One spent time in the ICU, she said.

"So you add some mold to some pandemic germs and some heat and some tightly filled classrooms and you’ve got a recipe for people who no longer need to teach or want to teach," Johnson said. "I think the teacher shortage, which has already kind of come to a head, is about to be exponentially worse in the coming years."

Forced to be creative

Pejot, the CMS HR chief, says if there’s a bright side to this situation it’s that schools have to be innovative about staffing.

Federal COVID-19 relief money covers an array of recruitment and retention bonuses for bus drivers, teachers and subs. But it fuels a competitive cycle. For instance, Iredell-Statesville offers a $250 bonus for new bus drivers, with an attendance bonus in the works. Berry said the district has also created dual employment jobs, in which cafeteria staff and teacher assistants double as drivers, providing a full-time paycheck and benefits.

School bus parked outside Gastonia's Bess Elementary School.
Ann Doss Helms
School bus parked outside Gastonia's Bess Elementary School.

"We would hire an employee and the expectation would be that they would drive a bus in the morning, serve as a teacher assistant throughout the day and then drive a bus in the afternoon," he said.

CMS weighed in with a $1,000 hiring bonus for bus drivers and the same amount to retain current drivers.

"But we were still experiencing a high rate of attrition at a very quick pace," Pejot said. "And many of those reasons that we were getting back is because different entities just paid more."

So last week CMS eliminated about 100 driver jobs – many of which it couldn’t fill anyway – to bump up pay by at least $2 an hour.

New ways to cover classrooms

Across the board, schools are competing with other government bodies that also have federal COVID relief money – and with private employers who are raising pay and offering bonuses in a tight labor market.

To cope with the shortage of teachers and substitutes, CMS is starting what Pejot calls a guest teacher program. That involves hiring permanent, designated substitutes for each of 42 low-performing schools to ensure that there’s always someone on hand to fill gaps. They’ll earn about $150 a day and don’t need licensure or a college diploma.

"These employees would be full-time benefit-earning employees who are making more than what any of our substitutes earn on the existing pay scale for subs," she said.

CMS is also working on a plan to hire teachers who will work remotely.

"You’d have to have a classroom manager helping students through the process in the actual classroom, making sure that students are logged in correctly. But the teacher would be streaming," she said.

And Pejot says CMS is adopting an idea introduced in Orange County to compensate teachers for extra duty when no subs are available. Retroactive to Oct. 1, teachers will be paid $35 for each planning period when they've had to cover a class.

Long-terms answers and small acts of grace

Meanwhile, Iredell-Statesville Schools has a federal grant to offer performance bonuses for teachers. And ISS is offering $8,000 in tuition aid for teacher assistants who study to become special education teachers and return to teach in the district.

But none of the short-term programs will end the teacher shortage, which began before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Educators and administrators are watching Raleigh to see whether the Republican-majority General Assembly and the Democratic governor can reach an agreement on raises for teachers. They’re working under a pay scale that hasn’t been updated since 2017. The state also controls many of the programs that could entice more beginning teachers into the profession.

But some strategies are small and localized. For instance, North Mecklenburg Principal Stephanie Hood created a bar-code scanning system for students who are tardy to check themselves in. Johnson says that eliminated one chore that was adding to her load.

Several educators mentioned a way parents can help: Stop letting political anger flow into classrooms. School board meetings have become battlegrounds in many places, as adults angrily debate mask-mandates, racism and other hot topics. Sometimes they also unload on principals and teachers.

"Teachers are dealing with more and more parent complaints about things that they can’t control," said Tulbert, the Iredell-Statesville middle school principal. "Like mask mandates, like quarantines."

At a time when so many teachers are near the breaking point, Tulbert says they need every bit of support they can get.

"I’ve never seen my teachers so exhausted as they currently are, and it’s only the beginning of October," she said. "It feels like it should be January or February right now."

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.