Education Department releases guide for using COVID-19 relief funds to address school labor shortages

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona answers questions during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss reopening schools during Covid-19 on Thursday, September 30, 2021.
Greg Nash

The Department of Education on Friday released guidance to help school districts around the country use coronavirus relief funds to address labor shortages.

Schools nationwide have reported shortages of workers in all areas of service, from faculty to cafeteria and sanitation workers to school bus drivers.

“According to a recent Ed Week Research Center survey, one in four district leaders and principals are reporting severe staffing shortages; and according to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 68 percent of principals surveyed are concerned about teacher shortages and report it has been more difficult to hire qualified teachers since COVID-19,” wrote Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a letter to state and school officials last month.

In that letter, Cardona urged schools to use the $122 billion made available through the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and parts of the $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to make short- and long-term investments to retain and attract talent to schools.

The two memos released Friday draw a map for states and school districts to implement funds to that purpose.

Cardona’s plan takes a two-pronged approach, proposing the easing of regulatory obstacles and directly incentivizing workers.

To address the shortage in school bus drivers, for example, the feds have waived requirements for commercial drivers to demonstrate mechanical prowess under the hood.

The Department of Education proposes four strategies to use federal funds to address staff shortages: Increase wages and benefits, simplify hiring of retirees and professionals licensed in other states, provide incentives such as specialized training, and support staff concerns over health and wellness.

Its handout suggests a series of tactics to legally use coronavirus relief funds, including using the funds for payroll or benefits to rehire former employees and awarding bonuses to employees who perform their work in person. 

The department’s suggestions for faculty shortages are split into short- and long-term strategies.

The former include financial incentives, as well as maintaining a cadre of high-quality substitutes and hiring AmeriCorps tutors to share the burden of full-time educators.

The long-term strategies focus on increased wages and investments in training and retaining high-quality teachers.

The Department of Education included a series of examples of states and school districts who’ve successfully used federal pandemic relief dollars to address their shortages.

The Indiana Department of Education, for instance, has launched a program to reroute $2.5 million in federal funds to help teachers earn their licenses.

The department also highlighted state-level legislation in Kentucky, which allows retired teachers to be rehired without losing their pension.

“We can’t lose this moment — this chance for a reset in education — by going back to the same pre-pandemic strategies that did not address inequities for Latino, Black, and Native students; students from low-income backgrounds; students from rural communities; students with disabilities; students experiencing homelessness, and English learners,” Cardona said in a speech at the Department of Education Thursday. 

Tags Coronavirus coronavirus pandemic coronavirus relief coronavirus relief funds COVID-19 relief labor shortages Miguel Cardona

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