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School staffing shortages can’t wait: The Biden administration is taking action

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The last two school years have been incredibly tough for American families. As a parent, I know how difficult it was for students to learn virtually and for parents to juggle childcare and their own work. That’s why the Biden-Harris administration has made reopening schools a top priority. And we’ve made tremendous headway, with approximately 99 percent of districts reopened for in-person learning. Across the country, kids are boarding school buses again, and many parents have already, or are preparing to, return to work.

Even as we took decisive action through the American Rescue Plan (ARP) to address schools’ needs, many schools are still experiencing shortages of critical staff, like teachers, paraeducators, school bus drivers, substitutes, mental health professionals, and nurses. We know many school staff are experiencing burnout. Some may still have concerns around COVID safety. Our administration continues to prioritize and press the importance of health and safety protocols to keep schools open and safe, and we continue to urge vaccination for all teachers and staff and are helping to increase regular testing. These actions are critical not only to retain and recruit staff, but to support educator and staff wellbeing.

But schools are also experiencing a broader challenge: basic supply and demand. There is high demand for a more limited pool of workers across the economy. Schools are competing for talent, not just with the district down the road, but with other sectors as well, many of which can respond more nimbly to changing labor market dynamics. That’s why the president and the entire Biden administration are working aggressively to help schools attract and retain the staff they need to serve their students.

Through the historic American Rescue Plan, states and school districts have significant funding available that they must put to work right now to compete for talent and provide stability. At the Department of Education, we’re providing support, technical assistance and resources to ensure school districts and State Education Agencies know how to use ARP and previous relief funds to attract and retain staff – including paraprofessionals, mental health professionals, and school social workers to address the crisis of mental health among our nation’s youth. We’re making sure schools know they can use ARP and other relief funds to increase wages by offering hiring bonuses for teachers and support staff, and provide permanent salary increases or premium pay. While I know it can be challenging to invest in increasing compensation with short-term recovery funds, our nation’s children need support now. We need more caring adults, not less, in our schools helping students overcome learning loss, and supporting their mental health, and we can’t afford to wait. Our administration is also committed to working with states and school districts to find long-term solutions that help educators receive the compensation they deserve; including through a proposed historic increase in funding for Title I schools. But the time to act is now.

Communities must also mobilize retirees as part of the solution. Treasury has issued FAQs clarifying that, in many instances, retirees can return to work and still receive their pensions. As an added incentive to retain current staff eligible for retirement, employees can in some cases begin receiving pension payments while still working. And where it’s not currently allowed, pension plans can be amended to permit these benefits. In addition to retired educators, we are calling on all state and district superintendents to mobilize retired social workers and psychologists to help meet our schools’ need to provide social, emotional, and mental health support to students – which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Schools across the country are already finding creative ways to address these challenges. For example, in Kentucky, retired teachers can keep their pensions if they’re rehired, and the state legislature voted in a special session to allow school districts to hire 10 percent of retired teachers – up from just 1 percent previously. In Fulton County, Ga., schools are offering up to a $5,000 signing bonus to new special education teachers and all teachers will get a 2 percent raise. States like Oklahoma, Minnesota, Nevada, and New Jersey are using American Rescue Plan funds to hire licensed school counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals – just to name a few.

By helping schools return to essential staffing levels and address challenges made worse by the pandemic, our students will get the services and supports needed to flourish this school year and beyond, and we can relieve some of the exhaustion of those working in understaffed schools.

Using every tool available to effectively recruit and retain critical staff is essential to support student success, better engage parents and families, and help grow our economy. Our administration stands ready to partner with states and districts to meet that challenge. Our time is now.

Miguel Cardona is secretary of Education.

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