'We need a lot more people': Staffing shortages bedevil school districts

As schools across the state welcome back students for a new school year, many districts still are working to fill open staffing positions amid a statewide shortage in education personnel.

More than 5,000 school employee positions remain open across the state's 852 districts, according to the Illinois State Board of Education website. Despite the educator shortage, school administrators are doing what they can to minimize the impact on students.

"Everything by and large went very well," Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said during last week's school board meeting as he reported on the first few days of classes. "If there's one area where we need some assistance, it's with people. We need a lot more people."

The state's second-largest school system started the year with more than 400 openings, including about 80 teaching positions. The district employs about 6,000 people.

"We need teachers, we need paraeducators, we need bus drivers," Sanders said, noting district employees have stepped up to help fill in the gaps.

School districts across the suburbs are finding creative ways to deal with the shortages.

For example, in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, officials are careful not to schedule professional development for large groups of teachers at once. Teacher absences are being covered with other teachers who give up their preparation periods to fill in the gaps, said Erin Holmes, District 211 director of communications.

  A sign on the fence at Fremd High School in Palatine advertises the need for teachers amid a statewide shortage. John Starks/

"This year is quite different when compared to years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic," Holmes said. "We have never experienced such a deficiency in candidates for teaching assistant positions, nor have we started the school year with so many open positions across our system."

She said the district was able to staff all teaching positions, but still is in need of teaching assistants who help serve students with English language learning or special education needs. The district also started the year short of a dozen school bus drivers.

Mundelein Elementary District 75 contracted with an agency to fill a social worker position. With an unfilled bilingual teacher position, the district had to drop a class section, resulting in some classrooms with 24 students rather than 19. The district also is using interns to help fill other gaps.

"We're very fortunate to have a talented and helpful staff that is willing, flexible and able to pitch in," said Peter Gill, District 75 spokesperson.

In Elgin's U-46, some teachers have come out of retirement to help fill open spots, said Sanders, noting that it's not unusual for the district to have retirees return to teaching.

"Retirees save us every year," he said.

Kindergarten teacher Lisa Hillquist leads her class into the building for the first day of school at Hoover-Wood Elementary School in Batavia on Aug. 16. School districts across the state are dealing with staffing shortages as they start the school year. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Local News Network

As districts grapple to fill full-time positions, they also are keeping an eye on their substitute teacher pool.

In Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit District 200, officials try to keep a list of about 250 substitute teachers to help fill in at the 20 schools.

"We're definitely shy of that," said Superintendent Jeff Schuler, adding the district started the year with about 100 fewer subs than needed. The district has increased the daily rate to $125 to help lure substitute teachers. School districts across the suburbs faced with similar shortages also have bumped up substitute pay to shore up the pool of substitute teachers in their districts.

Schuler and other school officials say the staffing shortages they face are the result of a number of factors, such as retirements or an increase in funds that help make new teaching positions possible, leaving some districts with a need for more teachers than in previous years.

And even though the state has seen the number of licensed teachers grow each year since 2018, districts still face shortages not just for classroom teachers but for other specialized positions, most notably special education and bilingual teachers and paraeducators.

The state has implemented a number of initiatives to help address the dearth, including residency grants, mentoring programs and short-term approvals that help teachers earn special licenses for bilingual or special education while teaching their existing classes.

"Illinois has invested in teachers and in public education," said Liam Chan Hodges, media coordinator for the Illinois State Board of Education.

  Anna Sanan talks to her fifth-grade students at Whittier Elementary Wednesday on the first day of school. Brian Hill/, Aug. 17

Like the state, suburban districts have programs to help attract employees.

In U-46, the district's Horizons for You covers tuition expenses for paraeducators who earn their teaching degree and agree to work in the school district once they complete the program, said Mark Moore, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. The district also has a partnership with Northern Illinois University that helps existing teachers earn bilingual or ESL endorsements to help fill some of those specialized teaching positions. To attract bus drivers, U-46 covers the expense of earning a commercial driver's license.

Despite the staffing shortages, school officials across the suburbs largely reported a good start to the school year. However, they are cautious about the future, saying it will take time to build up the pipeline of new teachers.

Some districts, such as Wheaton-Warrenville District 200, have programs to help engage high school students and get them interested in a career in teaching.

"There's a lot of good energy around rebuilding the pipeline, but that's going to take a few years. It's not going to correct itself in a single year," Schuler said. "The system as a whole and communities are going to need to support that effort to rebuild the pipeline."

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