Michigan schools are closing due to understaffing. Get used to it.

At rural public schools in Allegan Hopkins County, south of Grand Rapids, classes were canceled for two days last week, while at huge public schools in Ann Arbor, one or more buildings were closed six times since the start of fall classes.


Michigan schools close or become remote for days, often without notice. And while COVID-19 infections continue to play a role in these closures, the main problem appears to be the same one plaguing corner cafes and factories across the state: a shortage of workers.

Some districts do not have enough bus drivers to bring students to schools. Others cannot find enough teachers and substitute teachers to lead classes.

Bridge Michigan has spoken to principals about staff shortages. None were optimistic about finding a quick solution to a crisis that had been brewing for years.

“It’s like you’re hanging on a string and the string is losing threads,” said Adam Zemke, president of Launch Michigan, a schools advocacy group. “COVID was the breaking point. “

Here is what many had to say about the factors at play:

Are school closures increasing?

The official tally of closures won’t be known until the end of the school year, when districts submit reports to the Michigan Department of Education. But there is a consensus among school leaders that the closures have exploded.

As of Nov. 12, the Michigan Association of School Administrators had an unofficial tally of 21 school districts that have closed at least one building since September due to staff shortages. Most closures last a few days. Southfield is an exception, and is technically not a closure. In early November, it switched to a four-day in-person schedule, with students learning at home on Fridays. The change was made in response to staff shortages.

According to Fox 2 Detroit TV station, an email to parents in Southfield said that “stressors on families and educators, including labor shortages, increasing seasonal illnesses and disruption in the supply chain. ‘food supply “had created” a less than optimal learning environment “.

These closures do not include the thousands of students – sometimes a classroom or an entire building at a time – who have had to stay home due to coronavirus outbreaks.

Why is this a problem now?

School leaders who spoke to Bridge point to long-term systemic issues. Teachers retired at a higher rate during the pandemic, as fewer students graduate in education (a problem years before COVID hit), creating teacher shortages, especially in some specialties such as special education.

“The combination of early retirements, low enrollment in the teacher preparation program, and high burnout among educators who choose to leave the profession has created a perfect storm for school staff,” said Doug Pratt, director of Public Affairs of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher. union.

But that doesn’t explain why staff shortages are so much worse this fall than in recent years.

This reason has less to do with Michigan’s long-term teacher shortage than with the lower-paid workers who run the schools. This is a problem familiar to many Michigan businesses.

There are 190,000 fewer people in the workforce in Michigan than in February 2020, before the pandemic hit the state.

This means that those who are still in the workforce have many more options, and substitute teachers, bus drivers, and school cafeteria workers generally haven’t made much money. Before the pandemic, substitute teachers, for example, earned around $ 100 a day in many districts, and paraprofessionals – also known as class assistants – only earned $ 13 an hour.

“We’ve been facing a shortage of educators for years, but the pandemic has definitely made it worse,” Pratt said. “Without proper submarines, it doesn’t take much of an outbreak of COVID or any other disease for it to be impossible to safely staff a school building. Bus drivers, paraprofessionals, food service workers – we are seeing shortages in all areas of education employment.

With some fast food restaurants now paying $ 15 an hour, school jobs were less attractive.

Is a few days outside of school important?

If a restaurant can’t find enough cooks and waiters, it can lock the doors a few hours earlier than in the past or close on Mondays, and the impact on the community as a whole is relatively minor. But when the local elementary school can’t operate a bus because the drivers left to make more money driving for Fed-Ex, there is a huge ripple effect, said Rob Fowler, CEO of the Michigan Small Business Association.

Fowler said he often hears of businesses crippled by stay-at-home workers due to school closures.

“If there is a shortage of bus drivers or whatever, it disrupts the employees, which disrupts businesses,” Fowler said. “I’ve never seen it this way, where every industry everywhere” lacks employees.

The school impact of a few days outside the classroom can be quite minor for students who, after the last school year, are used to distance learning. But the impact can be significant for special education students and their families.

School closures are “absolutely horrible when it comes to my son with special needs,” said Jess Ronne, the mother of a severely disabled 17-year-old. His son, Luke, was out of school for more days than he was in September and October due to multiple incidents of close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and the unstaffed school to work with him.

“He’s not able to do virtual (learning) so basically he’s uneducated” when he’s not in school, Ronne said. “My husband and I have worked frantically to change our working hours (but) I don’t have time to educate him, I work, I try to support our family.

What is the solution ?

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has offered financial incentives to recruit and retain teachers. These incentives include service scholarships and loan waivers for teachers who commit to stay in their school district for a certain number of years.

State Superintendent Michael Rice presented similar recommendations to the State Board of Education this month, which would cost between $ 300 million and $ 500 million over five years. Rice’s plan would include reimbursement of tuition fees for students in education programs.

Launch Michigan has its own plan to address the state’s teacher shortage, which includes creating ways for paraprofessionals to transition to become teachers.

Launch Michigan recognizes that it could take “years, even decades” to eliminate teacher shortages. And none of the plans address the current critical shortages of non-teaching staff, like bus drivers.

What shall we do now? Are there short term answers?

The only quick fix to staff shortages is for school districts to open their check books, and some do.

Mona Shores public schools, south of Muskegon, offer a signing bonus of $ 2,500 for new bus drivers and a $ 500 search fee for district employees who recommend a new driver. In Oakland County, Huron Valley Schools is offering a signing bonus of $ 600 to new bus drivers.

But even financial incentive programs have drawbacks – school officials say large signing bonuses in one school district sometimes lure workers from neighboring schools, only rearranging staff shortages from district to district. ‘other.

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