Drivers needed

Fort Wayne Community Schools, like many school districts, is looking for dozens of bus drivers.

Schools across the country are facing staffing shortages. Bus routes have been canceled, employees have had to take on extra work and even superintendents have had to step in as substitute teachers.

The public schools in Allen County are struggling with the same problems, but how does this impact local school districts and students?

At Fort Wayne Community Schools, Public Information Officer Krista Stockman explained that finding people has been challenging. She said the district needs about 70 bus drivers. Classroom assistants and food service workers are in need as well.

“Teachers were not so bad on,” Stockman said. “I think we have about 50 openings, which is a pretty small percentage of our overall teaching pool. But substitute teachers are a big area where we just don’t have enough people.”

Stockman said buses are running late because drivers are sometimes running two routes in the mornings, which can cause students to be late. They are not canceling routes at this time.

This occurred as recently as Nov. 15 when all of FWCS’ social accounts posted this: “Because of a shortage of drivers, many of our bus routes are running extremely late today. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

In classrooms where teachers are needed, Stockman said in most cases, a long-term substitute is hired. FWCS also has central office staff, including the superintendent himself, help with classes as well. Two or more people will be sent for those who might not be comfortable being in a classroom setting.

“When we think about what our core business is, it is educating students, and so if that means some of us to have to put aside what we are going to do today to make sure that the kids are learning, then that’s what we need to do,” Stockman said.

She gave her opinion as to why these positions are open.

“A lot of it is what we are seeing across the country in just about every industry; there just aren’t enough people choosing to work to fill all of the job openings that there are,” Stockman said. “We started to see some of this even before the pandemic, that there were some positions that were getting harder to fill. With the pandemic, it just really just exacerbated a problem that was already there.”

Stockman said there are recruitment and retention bonuses for bus drivers, and employees will also receive bonuses for referring drivers who apply and are hired. FWCS will also help people earn their Commercial Drivers License.

A job fair was held two weeks ago for teaching candidates graduating in December.

“If we can hire them now and get them into a job come January, then we want to do that,” Stockman said. “We’re looking at every opportunity we can to get the word out there.”

FWCS has asked employees to refer their friends and even asked if they wanted to take on some of these jobs for additional pay. If possible, teachers and staff could take on extra work depending on their daily schedule.

“We are just really trying to be creative and flexible, even with our current employees, to see if there are extra responsibilities that they can take on,” Stockman said.

Go to fwcsjobs.org to see FWCS’ openings.

Southwest Allen County Schools is in the same situation. Director of Human Resources LuAnn Erickson and Director of District Communications Stacey Fleming spoke on this issue.

“I would say the pandemic has definitely had an impact, but I’m not sure it’s the total cause,” Erickson said. “But I do know that we’ve had employees who have said that they did not want to come back during the pandemic and that they would prefer to wait. That has had a dramatic impact, I would say, on our substitute teachers.”

She said some people also had to quit due to childcare responsibilities.

A virtual job fair was held for the current school year, and Erickson said it was “somewhat successful.” The district decided to change how positions are posted, leaning toward more generalized language.

Due to the shortage of bus drivers, some routes have been canceled at SACS. Fleming explained what this means for families.

Parents will get about a 24-hour notice through an email and text message if a route is canceled for the next day. In this situation, parents are expected to take their children to and from school. If they are unable to do so and their child cannot do online learning, the student is given an excused absence and can make up their work.

“We try to spread out those shutdowns so it’s not the same route impacted every single day or every week,” Fleming said. “We know that it’s an inconvenience, and we certainly know it’s something that we would love to say we don’t have this as a problem. I wish we had a solution.”

SACS will help interested applicants earn their CDL. The training lasts one to two months, and Fleming said the district tries to make it easy for individuals to thrive.

She attributes these shortages to societal change. With the hours being sporadic throughout the day, the district once had farmers, retirees or small businesses owners driving because they had the flexibility to work those positions and receive the benefits. But Fleming said that pool of people had dropped dramatically.

Erickson said that the district is doing what it can to fill these positions.

“We are trying to address it the best that we can,” Erickson said. “We are trying to get as many people to apply and be interested and to inform them. We also have looked at the benefits for some of these positions. Not too long ago, we increased the pay for substitute teachers. We’re looking at doing some more changes that we’re recommending to the board this week for approval. We are trying to address this internally as best we can to attract people, but it continues to be a struggle.”

People interested in browsing current openings can visit sacs.k12.in.us and click on the Employment tab.

The story is the same in Northwest Allen County Schools. Bus drivers, food service workers, instructional assistants and more are in short supply.

But Chief Communications Officer Lizette Downey said there might be more hires soon because the district is holding job fairs in January and April. The dates and times are still in the works, but the details will be released once they are available.

The January fair is for classified staff such as instructional assistants, custodians, nurses, office staff, technology staff and food service workers, while the fair in March is for certified staff.

Downey revealed there are 26 food service openings and instructional assistant positions available are in the upper 20s.

The district is willing to work with people to earn full-time hours since most of these jobs are part-time.

“You do not need a teacher’s license for them,” Downey said about the instructional assistant positions. “They are part-time work, and I know that if someone is looking for full-time, we can help if they are flexible and willing to do more than one area. The departments will work together to make it so somebody can have full-time status on some of them.”

She said this works well with bus drivers and food service workers. At NACS, bus drivers receive full benefits. Routes have been doubled up, and there are only two substitute bus drivers with 76 routes in the district.

“There are always going to be people who are taking off here and there,” Downey said. “So our managers and director end up driving pretty regularly, and that’s how we’ve survived so far. It’s not an ideal situation.”

She wanted to make evident that, like the other districts, this shortage is not just related to the pandemic.

“We have had shortages for a long time,” Downey said. “I think it just exacerbated with the pandemic because it made people who we often would look to like retirees a little more leary about coming back. Some of our reliables had to think twice about returning.”

The food supply chain shortage has also hit NACS, and with state food requirements, planning has become difficult.

“Our food service, they are pulling their hair out because they can barely plan a menu because there is no guarantee that things are coming in,” Downey said.

Downey said the district has a limited budget, and she thinks that is why they are struggling to fill these positions. But she said that there are benefits to working these jobs.

“Even though it is a broken-up schedule, you start early, you get some work done, it gets you a good chunk of time, about a four- or five-hour window, and you come back and do a little more and you are still done before a lot of people are finished on first shift,” Downey said. “It’s not a bad gig.”

Jobs at NACS can be found at nacs.k12.in.us/home under the employment tab.

Executive Director of Human Resources Tina Grady spoke for East Allen County Schools. She thinks there are many reasons why districts are having these shortages.

“I think there is a variety of reasons,” Grady said. “The pandemic and its overall effect on people, the additional unemployment benefit and competition across the area with other businesses.”

She said that EACS has raised wages, hosted a virtual job fair and attended community job fairs to entice people to apply. They recently adjusted insurance also.

“We have most recently streamlined the medical insurance to be much more cost-effective to all employees,” Grady said. “We attended job fairs prior to the pandemic, and attendance seems to be a lot less than historical job fairs.”

To find the job openings at EACS, go to eacs.k12.in.us/, scroll down to quick links on the right of the page and click on Employment Opportunities.

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