The Fall 2021 HR Challenge – Guest Post by Betsy Arons

There has been some of the usual hype about a teacher shortage, there is always a teacher shortage, right? But that may lead people to tune out, and there are some very challenging issues for school district HR this year given how fluid things are. I asked longtime school district HR professional and expert Betsy Arons (NYC, Montgomery County, Fairfax County) to share what she’s seeing right now in her work with districts around the country. Her guest post follows:

By Elizabeth Arons

August is typically always the most challenging time for any public school district Human Resources/Human Capital/Talent Management office as the district gets ready to open schools. But in a “normal” year, these challenges are mostly predictable.  Districts can usually estimate the number of resignations and retirements of staff based on previous hiring years.  They often hire early, predicting roughly the same number of vacancies as in past years.  They also can estimate predictable leave of absence requests, likely numbers of new substitute teacher candidates, staffing needs based on class size ratios, and the list goes on.

But this year is different.  Only a few months ago, it appeared the Covid-19 showed signs of waning.  Then the Delta variant took hold. And HR/Talent departments nationwide are challenged in ways never before imagined.

Here are at least a few of the dilemmas that are causing HR/HC/Talent departments in school districts to be stuck.

  • Will there be a larger number of vacancies as some teachers, especially those nearing retirement, decide not to return to in-person learning?
  • Or will there be fewer vacancies or need for new hires if significant numbers of students have left the district or opt for remote learning?
  • Should a district even offer the option of remote learning to accommodate those students who did better in that environment, or should they require all students to return to in-person learning, which many experts think is essential to better student outcomes.
  • If they do offer remote learning, do the subject fields match the teachers who are requesting to teach remotely?
  • How many teachers, principals, counselors, bus drivers, food service workers, etc.will apply for leaves of absence, fearing exposure to the virus, especially among younger, unvaccinated children?
  • Should the district require vaccination for all employees, like a number of businesses are now doing? If not, what happens if a staff member contracts the illness and exposes everyone, students included, to the disease.
  • All things considered, should HR hire up or should they lay off employees?

Those of us who support and advise Departments of Human Resources are equally challenged.  In pre-pandemic years, we have always advised them to “overhire” a bit at the start of the school year, anticipating last-minute vacancies or leaves of absence.  We also push hard to hire earlier in the Spring, when the candidate pools are largest and the applicants are better qualified.  HR has always had significant difficulty filling critical shortage fields – math, science, special education, Spanish, bilingual, computer science, etc.  – because traditional Schools of Education at colleges and universities don’t produce them. And to make matters worse, Schools of Education have been declining in enrollments for several years – down 15% – causing some urban and rural districts whom we serve to scramble even for typically oversubscribed fields like Elementary and Social Studies.

Teachers have been significantly stressed during the pandemic, shifting rapidly to remote learning without adequate training, guidance, or revised materials.  Some adapted quickly, others were struggling the entire year.  In addition to shifting to remote instruction, many had a hybrid model, teaching some students in-person and simultaneously teaching others at home.  One of the most compelling reasons teachers stay in the profession is the love they have for interaction with their students, but that reason was certainly diminished during remote learning.  And as we look forward to school opening, the Delta variant is now challenging the likelihood that in-person learning will be the only mode of instruction for all students.  In addition to all the staffing challenges, most districts are gearing up for mental health issues that have been impacted during the pandemic for both staff and students, including loss of family members and friends to the disease.

While many of the districts we serve have been back to in-person learning this past year, the Delta variant has proven to be more contagious and presents even greater challenges than the original Covid-19 virus.  We wish we had easy answers to opening schools this year, answers to help guide our hard-working HR/HC/Talent divisions nationwide.  But our organization, like so many others, is taking one day at a time, following the science and hoping that once schools are open, all students and staff can adjust to whatever the circumstances are and stay safe.

Elizabeth Arons is Chief Executive Officer of the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy

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