By Tim Gardner
Like other organizations and individuals across the nation and around the globe, the Avery County Public School System has had to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and try to overcome shortfalls that are producing undesirable effects in providing educational services for the county’s students.
“It’s definitely affecting Avery County Schools and has since the pandemic started two years ago,” Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman noted. “We anticipated a labor shortage just because of all the retirements and the upcoming baby boomers retiring. And as a result, the past several years educational leaders, including myself, and boards of education have anticipated a reduction in labor force. But what’s made the situation worse has been the COVID issues, and having people decide to retire sooner than anticipated and not work their full 30 years-plus. It’s been this way for public schools across the State of North Carolina, and Avery County is no exception. We’re facing a shortage for staffing in various areas, especially in bus driving positions, substitute teachers and in our special certification areas like Special Education, Speech Pathology, counseling and mental health experts.”
At the forefront of those shortfalls in Avery County is the need for bus driver staffing and additional substitute teachers in Avery County Schools. Both shortages were prevalent before COVID-19, but the pandemic has only magnified the issue, Brigman said.
To combat the need for more bus drivers and substitute teachers, the Avery County Public School System has raised pay for those positions to try to gain more applicants for them.
Concerning the bus driver shortage, Brigman declared that the scarcity of drivers has had to be dealt with by local public school system officials since the school year 2021-22 school year started.
“We’ve had to take some buses offline and consolidate routes at two of our schools,” Brigman said. “We’re continuing to look at more efficient ways to reduce the strain. And we appreciate the patience and understanding of our parents who may be having to adjust arrival and departure times because of the shortage.”
To try to minimize the effects of the lack of drivers, the Avery County Board of Education members recently took action to offer greater incentive to enter the field, including enacting the pay raises during a January 11 meeting.
“What we’ve tried to do to help mitigate the problem is to address pay variations and try to close some pay gaps in relation to other school systems of our size,” Brigman explained. “Our Board of Education members unanimously (5-0) approved an increase in the hourly rate for our bus drivers. Their starting pay is $17.00 an hour from the previous starting rate of $12.17. So that action really helped to try to attract some quality bus drivers. It takes a lot to get your CDL license, to go through training and maintain that bus driver’s license. It was a budget discussion I had with our Board and I’m happy the members approved the rate, as we just couldn’t compete and were losing drivers to local businesses, fast food restaurants and other businesses who were beating us in terms of hourly wage. We had to do whatever necessary to become competitive.”
To increase interest in substitute teaching, the Avery Board of Education also raised the pay scale for that position to increase its competitiveness in the field with other districts and positions.
“We’ve committed to adjust substitute teacher pay with two levels instead of four,” Brigman noted. “The Board of Education also unanimously voted on January 11 to increase the pay rate to $100 per day for non-licensed teachers, and $130 per day for licensed teachers. We’ve tried to invest more in these positions that we struggle to fill to try to make hiring more attractive to interested applicants, and we’re continuing to review those positions where we’re finding shortages occurring frequently.”
Brigman added that the Avery County Public School System experienced its greatest need for substitute teachers just prior to the winter storm of three weeks ago that blanketed the area, as the district dealt with increased COVID-positive case totals within the system that strained the system’s resources to have the necessary personnel to cover classes.
“We had our highest shortage of substitutes then,” Brigman said. “We had substitutes in just about every school. We’re hoping that those case numbers have drastically gone down since the second, and biggest, snowstorm we’ve had this winter shut us down.”
The hunt for adequate numbers of substitute teachers continues as a challenge for not only Avery County but school districts nationwide. According to a national survey conducted last Fall, more than 75 percent of school principals and district leaders surveyed said they were having trouble finding enough substitutes to cover teacher absences during the school year. The survey also conveyed that more school administrators reported challenges hiring substitutes than any other school position, including bus drivers, paraprofessionals, full-time teachers and custodians.
The shortage is significant enough at a state level that earlier this month, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced that state employees can use their paid volunteer time to serve as substitute teachers, bus drivers or cafeteria workers in a move to help combat the shortage of workers being felt across the Tar Heel State. The policy is effective through February 15.
“This policy will encourage state employees to lend a helping hand to our students at a time of severe staffing challenges for our public schools,” Cooper stated in a press release.
Terms of the plan include that employees could use paid leave to serve as substitute staff in schools and keep the money they earn as substitutes. State employees can use their 24 hours of community service leave to receive training to be a substitute teacher, a substitute teacher’s assistant, or in another substitute staff post at a school or school district. The state allows full-time state employees 24 hours of paid community service leave each calendar year.
School bus routes in some school systems in the state have had to be combined or doubled-up on to deal with driver absences, and additional district employees with commercial driver’s licenses (CDL) have worked to help students get to school.
A similar practice has been occurring locally as the Avery County School System works to maintain that children are able to receive transportation to and from school, as well as receive adequate instruction in the classroom as COVID-19 numbers and its Omicron variant has broken records in North Carolina in daily infection totals.
Brigman further detailed that the process is still crucial to find the right individuals to fill the roles available in a way that will most positively impact the school system as well as all who are part of the process.
“There’s three most important factors involved. At the top is finding candidates to apply for these jobs. We’re seeing a decrease in the number of applicants to fill these positions,” Brigman noted. “The second factor is the real estate market. When we have quality candidates and they research the real estate market, and see there’s a limited housing market, which is a challenge here in the mountains, that creates a hardship. The third factor is getting quality, certified people applying for the positions. It’s difficult to get quality and both certified and non-certified people to apply and be willing to work.”
The Avery County Public School System offers bus driver training courses through the state in-house, even having neighboring districts come to Avery County for training opportunities if it isn’t offered in that district. Avery also offers in-house training for substitute teaching.
For more information on employment opportunities and requirements, contact the human resources department with Avery County Public Schools by calling (828) 733-6006 or via the Internet by logging online to: www.averyschools.net.