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Principals are vacuuming hallways and serving lunch as school staffing shortage deepens

 Joseph Uy is a principal at Woolley Elementary School in North Las Vegas.
Nate Hegyi
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Joseph Uy is a principal at Woolley Elementary School in North Las Vegas.

It’s mid-morning at Gwendolyn Woolley Elementary School in North Las Vegas and principal Joseph Uy is walking the hallways. He greets kids and is wearing a mask with a picture of the school mascot on it – a woolly mammoth. He’s a jolly guy and he puts on a good face for his students and staff. But behind the scenes he’s exhausted.

“Honestly, I’m tired,” Uy says.

That’s because of severe staffing shortages across the district. Woolley Elementary has fifteen vacancies right now – about 25% of his staff. He also has a hard time finding substitutes when teachers are out sick. So some mornings he’s vacuuming the hallways before the kids show up because he doesn’t have enough custodial help. Other days he’s teaching classes or serving lunch in the cafeteria because the district doesn’t have enough food service workers.

“You just go into the kitchen and start stuffing some food into the little plastic bags and hand it out to the kids,” he says.

It’s overwhelming – especially because Uy is also dealing with grief. His mom recently died from COVID-19.

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“I’m exhausted,” he says. “I have taken a few days off to take care of myself but, you know, it’s a lot.”

Many educators are exhausted these days. Like other employment sectors, schools in the Mountain West are dealing with extreme staff shortages that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

In Colorado, about 15% of all positions at schools are open, according to a recent state survey. One district in rural Montana had to shut down for a few days in October because it didn’t have enough staff.

“We just don’t have enough folks in our buildings supporting our students,” says Danica Hays, dean of the education department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Hays researches public schools and education. She says staffing shortages in districts across the West aren’t new. Fewer people are going to college these days to become teachers and administrators. Meanwhile, the region is in the middle of a population boom.

“There are more kids and there’s a greater need for education and school personnel,” she says.

And then COVID-19 hit.

“The pandemic has certainly made it worse,” she says. “We’ve seen job openings double because of the pandemic. Not just in educator shortages but in other staff positions.”

Schools are short on everyone from custodians and teacher assistants to paraprofessionals and bus drivers. Hays says there’s a lot of unease about working during the pandemic. There’s also extreme competition for workers. It’s pushed wages higher in many sectors but not so much in schools, where raises are often dependent on tax levies, union contracts or legislative action.

In Las Vegas area schools, custodians start at about $13 an hour. Instructional assistants make roughly $11 an hour.

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“They do not want to work for that anymore,” says Shawina Tims, a Title I literacy and language intervention specialist at Woolley Elementary.

She understands why some of her colleagues found work elsewhere.

“Family Dollar is paying them $18 an hour,” she says. “They don’t have to come [into the schools] and take it anymore.”

The staffing shortage has extended to substitutes as well. The need for them has skyrocketed during the pandemic because more instructors are either calling in sick or are quarantining due to strict COVID protocols. But districts can’t hire or retain enough subs. Right now only about half of all requests for substitutes in the Clark County School District are getting filled.

Andrea Mesa, a first grade teacher at Woolley Elementary, remembers getting ill about a month ago. She was out for nearly a week.

“It wasn’t COVID, fortunately, but it took a long time to get the results back from the COVID test for me to be able to return,” she says.

The district was able to find subs for a couple of those days, but not every day that Mesa was sick. On those days, other teachers and staff had to give up their breaks and planning times to take over her classes.

“I feel guilty because we’re all stressed out. And for me to be out sick – I feel like I create more stress,” she says.

But Mesa is also grateful to those who filled in for her, making sure that the kids at Woolley Elementary keep learning.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News

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