Mei Chan may be the Las Lomitas Elementary School District's chief business officer, but on a chilly morning earlier this week, Chan was also a crossing guard for the district, which has one school in Menlo Park and one in Atherton. Dressed in a green reflective vest, she ushered students across the intersection of Avy and Altschul avenues near La Entrada Middle School.
Chan started supervising students on their way to the Menlo Park school on Sept. 24 when the school's crossing guard resigned. The hiring firm the school district uses, All City Management Services, has had difficulty enlisting guards, she said.
"One of us had to be out there, so I picked up the stop sign and just started being out there," said Chan, who was hired by Las Lomitas three and a half months ago. "As CBO, we just jump in wherever help is needed. It could be moving furniture. We're not a large district."
Las Lomitas, which has roughly 1,100 students, is facing the same problem plaguing many districts across the region and beyond: pandemic-induced staffing shortages. Over three-quarters of school district administrators in the U.S. report experiencing at least moderate staffing shortages this school year, according to a recent nationwide survey by the EdWeek Research Center. Locally, schools are having trouble finding people to fill a variety of positions, including crossing guards, bus drivers and classroom assistants.
The struggle to find substitutes
A shortage of substitute teachers has proved to be a particular pain point for schools on the Peninsula. Districts have had to get creative, with principals, counselors and other school staff covering classes. Teachers in some cases are also filling in for their absent colleagues during free periods meant to be set aside for grading and lesson planning.
These stop-gap measures may be unavoidable, but they have an impact, whether that's a counselor who has to cancel an appointment with a student or a teacher who misses out on important preparation time, Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin said.
The Palo Alto district, which serves over 11,700 students in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade, according to data from 2020, has seen its pool of substitute teachers shrink substantially. Before the pandemic, there were over 200 active substitutes in the district. Now, there are 111.
"To feel good about our situation, we'd probably want to double that number," Austin said.
The Los Altos School District, which has roughly 4,000 students in 2020, has similarly seen a sharp drop in the number of available substitutes. There are roughly 25 substitutes in the TK-8 school district this fall, compared with about 80 in the 2019-2020 school year.
The shortage has meant that in some instances, principals have been asked to cover classes, said Erin Green, the district's director of student and staff services.
"To tie up a principal in a classroom is really hard because then they're not able to address all of the big picture things that are coming their way," Green said.
Identifying possible reasons for staffing crunch
Substitute teacher shortages have been a recurring issue over the years, but the pandemic has made the problem more acute, school leaders say.
"It's already been hard to find subs, but the hardest problem about this now is that we're asking people to go into rooms where kids are unvaccinated," Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said.
As a TK-8 school district, many Mountain View Whisman students are currently too young to be vaccinated. Rudolph said he believes finding substitutes may be easier once children under 12 can get their shots.
Another part of the challenge, Rudolph said, is that the credentialing process for substitutes got disrupted by the pandemic. According to Green, some substitutes also retired, moved out of the area or are helping to care for family members.
"All these things have a compounding impact on availability to have subs," Rudolph said.
The broader trend of open positions across the economy may also be having an impact. Austin pointed to the "help wanted" signs in many restaurant windows as an example of the current labor shortage.
Most of the positions school districts are having trouble filling are part time or hourly, Austin said, as well as jobs that require specialized training, such as bus drivers. The Palo Alto district currently has enough bus drivers, "but by the skin of our teeth," Austin said.
Part-time, low wages jobs like crossing guards (the Las Lomitas district pays $45 to $52 for two hours a day) are often filled by senior citizens, a population now trying to minimize their exposure to COVID-19, Chan explained.
This week, Chan planned to train a crossing guard to replace her — a duty not normally delegated to district administrators — but the candidate bowed out of the position. The district is reevaluating how it fills its crossing guard roles, she said.
Over in the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District (MVLA), officials are seeing "very high turnover" among classroom assistants and in some clerical positions, human resources director Leyla Benson said. In August and September of this year, 17 classified employees resigned, compared with four during the same period in 2020 and seven in 2019, Benson said. Classified employees are those who don't have a teaching credential.
"It is very atypical that at the start of the school year you have people resigning," Benson said.
She attributed the resignations to a variety of factors, including some who are dealing with the aftermath of illness and family hardship during the pandemic, as well as others who have reset their priorities and want to make changes like staying home with their own children.
Menlo Park City School District staff are also facing staffing shortages. They've found it difficult to fill long-term substitute teachers, according to Assistant Superintendent of Talent and Technology Kristen Gracia. The district is also having difficulty filling daily positions when teachers or staff are out of the classroom or off work.
Some districts have turned to increasing pay as a way to attract more applicants. For substitutes in particular, many local districts have boosted wages. Palo Alto recently increased pay from $165 to $180 per day for a typical substitute. Long-term substitutes, who fill in for teachers on longer leaves, earn $300 a day, Austin said.
MVLA boosted daily substitute pay to $225, up from $180. Long-term substitutes make $473 per day, Benson said.
A potential solution: 'Resident' substitutes
Another strategy that has been effective for some districts is paying a group of substitutes to show up every day, regardless of the actual need, so that someone is available if a last-minute absence occurs.
MVLA in particular decided over the summer to start a "resident" substitute program in anticipation of a likely shortage this fall. The district pays five or six substitutes to consistently staff each of the district's high schools.
The program has been a "tremendous benefit," Benson said, adding that the district hasn't "felt the pain" of the substitute shortage that other districts are experiencing.
"Having the resident subs available to plug in when we're in a pinch has really assisted," Benson said. The district is considering expanding the program as the winter flu season approaches.
MVLA also launched a pandemic hiring initiative back in the spring, looking for community members who could supervise classrooms where the teacher was still instructing students over Zoom. Some of those hires ended up completing the required steps to become a regular substitute, rather than a classroom monitor, and stayed on this fall.
In some cases, these were stay-at-home parents who wanted to help the school return to in-person classes.
"When they heard that we could get school up and running and we needed these vital positions, they were on board 100%," Benson said.
Alice Tong was among the parents who signed up last spring to supervise classrooms and is now working as a resident substitute at Mountain View High.
With one child who graduated from Mountain View High in the spring and a pair of twins who started their freshman year at the school this fall, Tong said she saw an opportunity to help support kids who may have had a difficult time during the pandemic.
"I wanted to help out the kids who were coming back, and also the school and the teachers," she said.
Tong came in with a lot of experience, having first started subbing in the Mountain View Whisman School District roughly eight years ago. She decided to keep working for the high school this fall, in part because being a resident substitute gave her a consistent schedule. Currently, she's working every Tuesday and Thursday.
"In most school districts when you sub, it's on an on-call basis," Tong said. "It's very difficult to plan because you don't know if you're working that day and you don't know where you're working."
Other school districts are also trying out a similar model, where they guarantee certain substitutes regular work.
The Palo Alto district is offering resident substitutes $250 per day and is looking to find four to staff each high school, plus three at each middle school. The Los Altos School District currently has one substitute who works every day but moves among schools and is looking to hire a second.
"We know we're going to need them, so we've hired them permanently for the year," Green said.
Districts are also running substitute recruitment events. Los Altos is holding a substitute information night next month at which attendees will learn about what's required to become a substitute.
"Some of our greatest subs are parents right in our own community," Green said.
Districts have also in some cases turned to outside companies to help provide substitutes. Both the Los Altos and Mountain View Whisman districts have contracted with Swing Education, which recruits substitute teachers and provides them to districts.
In many cases though, Rudolph said, his district's most reliable substitutes are those who are hired directly by the district.
A rise in staff absences
In some cases, the substitute teacher shortage is being compounded by an increase in staff absences, potentially because of the increased emphasis being placed during the pandemic on staying home if you are ill.
The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District has seen the number of teachers missing work for personal or family illnesses go up somewhat this fall. Teachers missed 148.33 days of work last month due to illness, compared with 131.6 days in 2019, according to data Benson compiled.
However, most other districts say that teacher attendance has stayed relatively stable and the bulk of the problem is the lack of available substitutes.
"We're not necessarily having a higher number of staff absences, but there is absolutely a substitute shortage," Los Altos Superintendent Jeff Baier said. "And we're all grappling for the same pool of people."