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Unit 5 staff shortages go well beyond bus drivers

Unit 5 help wanted.jpg
Charlie Schlenker
Even outside Normal Community West High School, Unit 5 is asking for job applications.
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Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle says one of the biggest challenges the district faces is staffing shortages, telling the school board Wednesday evening that even at the end of the first quarter of the year, there aren't enough bus drivers to run the full number of routes to get kids to school on time.

"We have contacted other busing services, school districts, even Connect Transit to see if they can provide any relief and unfortunately no one has been able to do so because they are also short staffed of bus drivers," said Weikle.

WGLT first reported on the bus driver shortage experienced by contracting firm, First Student, on Sept. 20. Weikle said the problem persists and Unit 5 has had to reduce the number of routes and make existing ones longer.

"I do know this has not been ideal for students and families. Unit 5 and First Student have worked together to get students to and from school even if they are late," she said.

Weikle said that is significant because some districts across the country have simply told parents they will not run certain routes indefinitely. She said Unit 5 has resisted doing that.

She said First Student had extra drivers on board at the start of the year, but resignations ate into the safety margin and subsequent resignations, illnesses, and call-ins have created a chronic shortage. That is even with the hiring of 25-30 drivers since June.

First Student currently has 17 drivers in training, though it takes about 45 days to train a new driver, said Weikle.

"Assuming we do not have any resignations, we should have enough drivers to complete all vacated routes in the next two and a half weeks," said Weikle, who portrayed the driver shortage as nationwide.

Indeed, Connect Transit, Bloomington-Normal's public bus system, reduced the frequency of its routes in late September to cope with the workforce shortage.

Weikle said the staff shortage problem extends beyond buses. In conversations with other superintendents across Illinois, she said substitute teachers and teaching assistants are becoming scarce. Heyworth schools earlier this week announced it would move classes temporarily online, in part because it did not have enough substitute teachers to staff all classes at short notice when a COVID spike took educators out of the classroom for quarantine or illness.

Weikle said Unit 5 is looking to hire part- and full-time positions in subs, teachers' assistants, food service, nurses, and custodial staff. She said district human resources workers have gone to job fairs, put yard signs around town and advertised at extracurricular events.

"Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for them to walk away with a number of names after an event to have only one or two of those individuals show up for scheduled interviews," said Weikle.

There also was a help wanted sign directly outside Normal Community West High School before the school board meeting Wednesday evening. And Weikle pitched the public during the meeting, urging them to use the district website to apply or to call the unit office.

Supply shortages

Unit 5 also is having another common pandemic-related problem — supply chain issues. Weikle said their food distributor warned of product shortages and those have materialized. There are manufacturing delays, and product, delivery and employee shortages.

"Unit 5 has experienced difficulty in getting certain foods and products. If you have older students, just ask them. Some of their favorite foods are not available because we can't get them in," said Weikle, adding staff have scrambled to find substitutes for entrees that also meet mandatory nutritional guidelines.

"We have had to change menus, sometimes on short notice," said Weikle.

And it won't get better any time soon. Weikle said the food service contractor has said shortages will likely worsen between now and Christmas.

"And they really don't see a lot of improvement until the next school year, the 22-23 school year," said Weikle.

Unit 5 administrators did not immediately have an estimate of the number of vacancies they have. Weikle said some categories such as teaching assistants and substitute teachers are always open for applications, even when there is not a more general workforce shortage.

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