'We are hiring in every department': School staffing shortages continue across suburbs and state
As she visited schools on students' first day of the new academic year, Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Suzanne Johnson made sure to ask about staffing levels.
Six days later, at the Aug. 21 school board meeting, she made another pitch for the district.
"If anyone is out there still thinking about how they'd really like to dust off that teaching certificate ... or they think they could be of support in that noon hour supervision or food services," Johnson said, "we are hiring in every department."
As of Thursday, the state's second-largest school district had 100 teaching positions open, 100 paraeducator positions to fill, and another 20 open spots in the food and nutrition services department.
The staffing shortage is not unique to Elgin U-46.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education, school districts statewide started the year with more than 7,000 open teaching, paraprofessional, support and administrative staff positions.
Last year, the state agency reported about 5,000 vacancies at the start of the school year.
"That's not an ideal situation," said Al Llorens, president of the Illinois Education Association, which represents teachers across the state.
Llorens is quick to note that school staffing shortages have become a more significant issue in recent years. In 2017, the state board reported a total of 2,006 unfilled positions statewide at the start of the school year.
Since then, vacancies have risen annually except in 2021, when most schools started the year with remote learning.
"There were years where the public narrative was not in favor of public education, and that has had a chilling effect on people wanting to go into the profession," Llorens said.
To help address staffing shortages, the Illinois Education Association has partnered with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the state board to develop mentoring programs to help retain young teachers. The IEA also is working with universities to prepare prospective teachers.
State lawmakers earlier this year also approved a $70 million pilot program to help hire and retain teachers.
As of Jan. 1, the state also began offering a short-term paraprofessional license, allowing those 18 and older to work in an elementary school as a paraprofessional while completing coursework for full licensure.
Paraprofessionals act as teacher assistants or provide additional student support in the classroom. Of the more than 7,000 unfilled positions reported by the state board, roughly 2,700 are for paraprofessionals.
"We believe the changes in requirements for paraeducators have helped, but we are still facing challenges in filling all of our positions," said Adam Palmer, assistant superintendent of human resources for Hawthorn School District 73.
Many districts have been able to hire enough teachers to staff classrooms. But specialized teaching positions, such as bilingual or special education, are among the most challenging to fill, suburban school leaders say.
"We don't have teachers in all the bilingual classes, and I don't expect that we will," said Mark Moore, assistant superintendent for human resources in Elgin U-46. "There's just not enough bilingual teachers to cover the needs."
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 kicked off the school year with teaching positions fully staffed. But other positions -- school nurses, school psychologists and instructional assistants -- have been tougher to fill.
"We've had a challenge there. We made some adjustments that seemed to make hiring a little bit easier, but there still is just not a really strong pool of candidates," Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "The workforce doesn't appear to be out there as much."
The school board earlier this summer approved a one-year contract extension with the union that represents more than 400 district employees, including teaching assistants, health aides, secretaries and maintenance workers. To ease hiring challenges, the district increased starting pay rates, beginning with this school year.
Like other districts, Palatine-Schaumburg Township High School District 211 is looking for more bus drivers. The district started the school year short 25 bus drivers.
"This is a continued trend," said Erin Holmes, District 211's director of communications.
She added the district is also looking to fill teaching assistant and substitute teaching jobs. "While we held a productive hiring fair that filled many important slots, our administrators are consistently needing to devise creative solutions for the shortages."
In many instances, education leaders say, those creative solutions involve stretching existing resources to fill the gaps.
A long-term substitute, for example, may fill in as a bilingual teacher. Bus drivers double up on routes, meaning earlier pickup and later drop-off times for some students. A teacher may take on an additional class to teach, or social workers might take on extra students to meet the demand for services.
Even Elgin U-46's Moore filled in to serve lunch at Bartlett High School for three days during the first week back to school due to a shortage of cafeteria workers.
"For me, it was fun," Moore said, "but that isn't a sustainable solution."
• Daily Herald reporters Katlyn Smith, Eric Peterson, Mick Zawislak and Christopher Placek contributed to this report.