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St. Louis Area Schools Face Uphill Battle With Ongoing Staffing and Supply Shortages

School Illustration
Illustration by Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
Supply shortages are serving up a challenge for many school cafeterias in Missouri.

Schools nationwide are facing staffing and supply shortages. The problem has grown more acute against the backdrop of the pandemic as schools have returned to in-person learning.

Across the St. Louis region, school districts are feeling the sting of those shortages, including St. Louis Public Schools. The district is down 105 teachers, 112 staff, and the pool of substitute teachers is scarce, said Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

“Normally we would have a long line [of substitutes] to go through to screen,” Adams said. “That line is a lot shorter than it has been in the past.”

Part of the problem is that many teachers in the district have retired. Others are not comfortable coming back into the classroom. Adams said there’s no quick fix to this shortage, especially as more staff and teachers are feeling the weight of burnout. The district has tried recruiting people and even offering financial incentives, like bonuses. It didn’t move the needle.

“What we’re finding is from some of our vendors those bonuses are not making much difference in terms of getting people in,” Adams said. “So I think we’re just going to have to be strategic.”

Adams is meeting with school leaders this week to discuss ways to address the shortage.

The teacher shortage isn’t the only issue. Adams said the lack of bus drivers is an even bigger problem. Bus drivers are calling in daily, affecting bus routes. Adams said explaining to parents that school buses are not reliable has been tough.

“[We] make them aware that buses are going to be late or buses are not going to be showing up,” Adams said. “[We’re] working with cab services to drop off and pick up kids.”

Reduced meal options

Teacher and staffing shortages are just some of the challenges many school districts in the St. Louis region are facing. Having fewer warehouse workers and truck drivers nationwide has made it difficult to get certain food items like beef and chicken in school cafeterias.

Onye Hollomon, a spokesperson for the Ferguson-Florissant School District, said school officials have had to reduce the number of school menu items to make it work. She said they’ve been sticking to entree choices that students prefer and that also meet nutritional and dietary requirements.

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Hollomon said. “We have signage that we put up in all of our schools and the cafeteria just letting people know that due to supplier shortages, some items may not be available.”

She said there could come a time when staff may have to get even more creative, such as going to the grocery store themselves to make sure kids are fed. However, a reduced menu isn’t the only problem the district is facing. For the first time, the district had to use a staffing agency to fill food service positions within the district.

“We’ve never really had to do that before,” Hollomon said. “So, it’s been mostly since the pandemic started. Normally we would have plenty of people who would apply for our food service positions within the district.”

Not having enough staff is something Karen LaCaze is familiar with. She is the cafeteria director at the Collinsville Community Unit School District 10 and the general manager 3 at Sodexo. She oversees all of the food service for the school district.

LaCaze said she’s been looking for more staff. She had 15 interviews scheduled, but only three people showed up.

"This year the labor shortage has been unreal,” LaCaze said. “If we have staff call off, it puts an even larger strain on staff to juggle what we are already doing.”

But she’s even more concerned about what it could mean for her skeleton crew if employees have to quarantine. She said that despite her team's best efforts, quarantining could mean the menu would be altered to only cold meals. Still, LaCaze said her district is one of the “lucky ones.”

“We are unique in the fact that Collinsville has a large storage area,” LaCaze said. “Some weeks the products I want come in and sometimes they do not. So when I order I order heavily on the product, so if it comes in, then we can store it for a short period of time.”

No quick fix

Like St. Louis Public Schools, Normandy Schools Collaborative is down 16 teachers. One-third of its bus driver positions are vacant. While it’s not as bad as it was last school year, Sarah Jamison, the director of human resources, said the hiring pool to recruit from is bleak.

The district started the Normandy Teaching Fellows program to address the problem. The program is designed for people who have a passion for teaching but may not have a degree in the education field. Fellows will be able to obtain their certification in 12 to 18 months. All of it is paid for through the district.

“We are able to attract very highly qualified folks who are interested in teaching," Jamison said, "but also we’re helping them to start another career or develop the career that they have decided to go into.”

Normandy Schools Collaborative has even bumped up the pay for short-term substitute teachers to $130 per day. If short-term substitutes are in the classroom for 20 days consecutively, then they will convert to the long-term rate of $175 per day. This is one of the ways the district is recruiting more people with the goal of getting them interested in applying for the fellowship program to get their certification.

Other districts like Ferguson-Florissant hope to attract more teachers with better pay. Hollomon said that teachers start at $40,000 per year with benefits; the average salary is more than $67,000. She said the district tries to be competitive and pays more to get qualified candidates into the classroom.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.