Staff Shortages and Employee Burnout Leading to School Closures

Kids in school with teacher

Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Exhaustion and stress are leading to staff shortages among school employees.
  • School officials have had to shorten school days, come up with creative schedules, and even close schools due to employee absences.
  • Parents have dealt with changing work schedules and supplementing their children’s schoolwork when unexpected changes occur.

After the disruptions of pandemic lockdowns and virtual schooling last year, school staff and students are eager to get back to in-person schooling.  But as administrators and families navigate still-present concerns about the spread of COVID-19, they’re faced with potential school closures for other reasons—staff shortages and employee burnout.

Take Bellevue School District in Bellevue, Washington, for example. Administrators have always been quick to address their schools’ staffing needs. When needs arise—say extra hands in classrooms, or more bus drivers—they are filled as soon as possible.

But this year officials noticed a trend of more employee absences, and fewer people to fill the spots. They have monitored staffing needs daily since September, and employee absences continued to rise, with the number of missing personnel approaching 20%. Without adequate numbers of teachers available, they've had to take drastic steps, canceling classes on November 12 to be able to support their staffing needs.

Jeffrey Thomas, EdD

What we are seeing this year is a significant increase in employee absence[s] related to exhaustion, high levels of stress, and the constant intensity of work over the last 20 months.

— Jeffrey Thomas, EdD

“What we are seeing this year is a significant increase in employee absence[s] related to exhaustion, high levels of stress, and the constant intensity of work over the last 20 months," explains Jeffrey Thomas, EdD, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources for the district. "The issue is now a ‘coverage issue’, meaning when we are looking at more than a 10% absence rate for teachers on any given day, we will not be able to cover all absences with substitutes."

School staff burnout is having an impact on school instructional time, while sudden closures affect parents who still need to work. Here are some practical things parents can do during these periods of uncertainty.

School Staffing Issues

When school closures led to virtual learning at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers had to adapt to an entirely new way of consistently teaching online. Teachers revamped lesson plans, attempted to keep students engaged via Zoom, and maintained connections with students to the best of their abilities—but it was a challenge.

Some students fell behind, and many dedicated teachers continued to provide instruction throughout the summer. As schools return to in-person learning, teachers find they are still wearing a number of hats. This time, however, the pressure is increased by the need to cover for missing personnel. It has all taken a toll.

“While staff shortages have existed since the start of the school year, they became most pronounced as a reason for closures starting in November," notes Dennis Roche, president of Burbio, an organization that monitors data from school district websites. "The closures in August and September were driven by quarantine policies and COVID-19 case rates that affected entire schools. More recently the issue has been the shortage of substitute teachers."

Dennis Roche, President of Burbio

More recently the issue has been the shortage of substitute teachers.

— Dennis Roche, President of Burbio

Roche notes, in fact, that schools have run into a myriad of issues that contribute to problems with coverage. "There are two different types of disruptions," he explains. "In some cases, short-term staffing issues or proactively scheduled ‘mental health’ days lead to school closures. The second type of disruption is pre-planned virtual days. They are set up so staff can catch up with planning and working with students who need extra help, while many students work independently from home."

Schools in Jefferson County, West Virginia explored this exact balance in order to give staff a break while still providing the best learning environment possible. They resorted to half days on Fridays on an as-needed basis.

Schools in Aiken County and Edgefield County, South Carolina, modified their calendars and will now have to start school earlier next fall. Other schools have shortened their school day and reduced summer breaks. Meanwhile, teachers are having to adapt lesson plans, modify instructional time, and even use virtual learning resources to help students keep up.

While administrators are doing their best to provide solutions for exhausted employees and eager students, some of the steps taken are putting a strain on parents.

Parents and the Last-Minute Scramble

Jessica Hasson, PhD, says her child’s school in Maryland canceled class on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, with less than two weeks’ notice. Both she and her husband had to work that day. With his job in biosafety testing and hers as a psychologist, neither had the ability to work from home to care for their son. It wreaked havoc with their jobs.

“We had to shuffle appointments and schedules to adjust," Dr. Hasson explains. "I also had to add appointments the following week to account for the missed appointments to ensure clients had access to care."

In addition to the canceled day, the school district turned several full days of instruction into half days, prompting Dr. Hasson to take that time off from work. “It’s unfair for him to leave him home watching TV while I work, so instead I am taking the days off and will work at night once he is asleep," she says. "It’s unfortunate but it’s making the best of a non-ideal situation.”

Jennifer Linton Reesman, PhD, also has a daughter in that school system. Dr. Reesman attended the school board meeting where the decision was made to close school prior to the holiday. She notes that families received emails and text messages saying that school would be canceled. “The notice cited staffing and that the day before Thanksgiving is traditionally a day with low attendance from students,” she says. While she did have backup care for her child available, she is also concerned about what the students are missing.

Jennifer Linton Reesman, PhD

I worry that the actions that they are taking now essentially makes education a luxury item. [That] does not sit well with me.

— Jennifer Linton Reesman, PhD

“I worry that the actions that they are taking now—taking time off of the calendar with little notice—essentially makes education a luxury item where only families that can afford the fees of additional out-of-school programming will receive an education," Dr. Reesman says. "[That] does not sit well with me."

Administrators say staff are still very much committed to the growth and educating of students. They are trying to do the best they can in a difficult and unprecedented situation. For some parents, however, it’s not enough. “We need to recognize that children are owed an education and that parents in the workforce also deserve a reliable public education for their children,” Dr. Reesman notes.

Practical Tips for Unexpected Changes

When parents get the call, text, or email about a child’s school closing school or changing the calendar, anxiety can creep in, along with an avalanche of questions. However, a little advance preparation can go a long way when unexpected changes arise.

“Work with your school district and school principals to get a list of childcare resources that give you safe and healthy options for your student,” advises Janine Thorn, the chief communications and engagement officer for the Bellevue School District. “Keep open communication with your student’s teachers so you know what learning is expected during this time of learning recovery. Look for additional learning resources to help supplement your student’s learning."

Taking your child with you to work for a day of learning is another option. But this may not work for some jobs, like healthcare and retail workers.

Both school officials and parents say they do not want to return to virtual learning and need to work through staffing issues. Although educators can give helpful tips to dealing with the challenges, parents say it boils down to getting more involved.

“There is no amount of self-care or creative solutions out of this problem,” states Dr. Reesman. “I would recommend [that parents] become active in this issue and communicate to their local boards of education that education is essential, and that closing schools must not be an option at this point.”

With concerns from multiple perspectives, administrators offer a ray of hope. “Public education is a cornerstone of American society and cannot be neglected,” Dr. Thomas states. “It will not be easy, but public education is designed to withstand extraordinary pressures,” he concludes.

What This Means For You

As a teacher or school administrator, it can be hard to rearrange schedules, revise lesson plans, and see students lacking the learning time that they need. It can also be challenging to push through exhaustion and stress on a daily basis.

For parents, it may not be easy to unexpectedly learn your child’s school is closing because there aren’t enough staff members available. Exercising patience, being flexible, and working with school district officials on proactive solutions may be the best way to help educators and students have a more positive school experience.

2 Sources
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  1. Bellevue School District. No school November 11 and 12.

  2. Aiken County Public Schools. Modified academic calendar.

By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at