When the 12:45 p.m. bell rang at Urbana Middle School on Wednesday, marking the start of grade eight lunch, Sharon Eburg took a deep breath.
“This is our cue for rock and roll,” she said, rising from her seat.
Within three minutes, the line of students waiting for food stretched the length of the cafeteria. Eburg was the only person to serve them. Her only colleague, Linda Hollins, kept the register.
In a typical year, they would have double the staff available.
Dressed in a cheerful Halloween-themed blouse, Eburg greeted each student with flying colors. “Hi, honey,” she was saying, her hands flying over trays of quick-draining mozzarella sticks and chicken patties. “What would you like?”
For 27 years, Eburg distributed lunches to students in public schools in Frederick County. Now, she is also the president of the union which represents the support workers of the system. Bus drivers, janitors, secretaries, teacher assistants and more than 150 other professions are under his responsibility.
In her nearly three decades of experience, Eburg said, she has never had a year as difficult as this.
“The employees are just exhausted,” she said. “I don’t know of any fully enrolled school like before. “
FCPS had 226 vacancies for support staff on Friday, system spokesperson Brandon Oland wrote in an email. For Eburg and the other workers, the shortage meant longer days and, often, a heavy emotional toll.
“We feel like we’re invisible,” Eburg said.
District employment figures are based on full-time equivalency, meaning that an unfilled part-time position could only count for half of a vacant position. Using this metric, Oland said the district was short of 66 special education teaching assistants, 23 guards and 19 bus drivers – most of whom drive at least three routes a day.
Sign language interpreters, secretaries, food service workers and maintenance staff are also in short supply.
Despite offering hiring bonuses and working to expand community outreach, Oland said, the district does not have enough applicants.
“We are making a concerted effort to ensure that we address the employment gaps that we have,” said FCPS Director of Public Affairs Eric Louérs-Phillips. “It is important to continue to support our staff, who are part of the FCPS community. “
The problem is far from unique to Frederick County. Just across the Potomac River in Jefferson County, West Virginia, officials said on Wednesday that schools would close three hours earlier each Friday due to staffing issues.
Staff needed more free time each week to “do all the planning, deep cleaning, preparing class materials, IEP / SAT meetings, etc.” which they would struggle to complete otherwise, officials wrote in a document explaining the decision.
According to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 460,000 public education jobs were open as of July of this year, up from less than half of that amount at the same time in 2020.
Shortages in a handful of roles have a “domino effect” across an entire school, Eburg said, forcing staff to pile extra work on top of their existing tasks.
FCPS teachers, for example, have put on hairnets to help serve lunches, said Frederick County Teachers Association president Missy Dirks. Long queues for lunch give students less time to eat, leaving guards less time to clean up.
Elaine Crawford, an officer for the Frederick Association of School Support Employees, said some FCPS central office employees with commercial driver licenses have started driving school buses in parallel. And yet, almost every day, some buses across the county are delayed by 30 minutes or more as drivers are forced to travel additional routes.
This means teachers must stay beyond their contractual hours to supervise students during layoff, Dirks said.
Tonya Albaugh, a babysitter at Sabillasville Elementary School, said staff issues forced her in on Saturdays, working for free to complete tasks she was unable to complete during the week.
The post-pandemic morale of her colleagues is low, she said.
“We’re all depressed,” Albaugh said. “It’s horrible.”
Non-teaching staff make up half of the K-12 workforce, which numbers 6 million across the country, according to a 2014 study by the Thomas Fordham Institute.
“They are the first to open the schools, so they work very early in the morning. They’re the ones who close the schools, so they work nights, ”Crawford said. “And during the day they do millions and billions of things. “
Support workers are paid much less than teachers, on average: While the median salary in May 2020 for kindergarten and elementary school teachers was $ 41,950, the median salary for a teaching assistant from kindergarten to the 12th grade was $ 28,900, according to the BLS.
And people in hourly positions like catering and transportation often earn even less. Eburg said employees in his department typically start working three hours a day at $ 13 an hour. Recruiting is difficult, she says, when her colleagues realize they could make $ 17 an hour or more at a local gas station.
But Crawford and Eburg both said the reasons for the shortage likely extended beyond the issue of pay.
“Yes [FCPS] had all the money in the world… would that get us the drivers or fill the shortage? I’m not sure that’s true, ”Crawford said. “Outside of the school system, almost every business, every business is scrambling to hire employees. “
The district is hosting a career fair next week and has announced signing bonuses of $ 1,500 in recent months.
But in the meantime, some overworked support workers are approaching their limits. Albaugh said she was counting the days until she could step down from her babysitting job and start nursing classes at Frederick Community College.
On a five-minute break between lunch shifts on Wednesday, Eburg sat in an office decorated with inspirational quotes and pictures of flamingos, responding to emails.
More and more, she said, she is getting messages from workers who don’t know how long they can still last.
“They are tired,” she said simply. “They are discouraged.