How a shortage in substitute teachers and bus drivers is affecting Wisconsin

Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 2:24 PM CDT
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Black River Falls and Sparta, Wis. (WEAU) - Elementary school students may find a day with a substitute teacher as a fun way to try and sneak in an extra recess.

However, districts across the state are currently struggling to fill the positions with a shortage of subs and school bus drivers.

One back to school issue that’s not new to districts, but amplified due to the pandemic is the shortage of substitute teachers.

“I would say the sub shortage has been talked about in every region, in every conversation we are a part of. Nobody has fixed that,” said Dr. Shelly Severson, the Black River Falls School District Superintendent.

Severson says the district has 175 full time teachers and only 27 substitutes with varying availability currently signed up.

Whether a radio spot, newsletter ad, or parent meetings— the schools are always trying to recruit.

The school district says that in a normal year if a substitute teacher is unable to be found for a class that the students are split up into the other classes of the same grade level, however, this year with COVID-19 that's not an option.

“If we can’t find a substitute, we’re going to have to pull somebody else from within the building which means there might not be music that day because that teacher is subbing,” Severson explained. “There might not be PhyEd one day or a school counselor might be subbing that day.”

With the mask mandate in effect, Black River Falls no longer needs to limit subs to one building.

The district also has two full-time floating subs who were used every school day last year.

The shortages don’t stop with teachers.

“Transportation has been a real challenge and as I talk to colleagues across the whole state nobody has figured out how to be able to socially distance on the bus,” Severson added.

This year, Black River Falls is having early release so aides can assist bus drivers with assigned seats and mask requirements.

The district has 18 bus routes and just four substitute bus drivers.

Finding it difficult to fill the position, some districts turn to bus companies like Southwest for contracts.

Southwest covers busing in Sparta, Prairie Du Chien, and De Soto.

Those three cities require around 60 drivers and in mid-August positions still need to be filled.

“It’s getting to be crunch time. Luckily, we do have a few shop staff-- myself, our router, and a few mechanics that are able to drive buses,” said Jason Schwarz, Southwest Bus Company Sparta terminal manager. “The [mechanics] do have their licenses.”

Schwarz says around 60 percent of the company’s employees are retired.

For Black River Falls, a significant amount of subs and bus drivers are also retired— an age group at a higher risk for coronavirus.

“The Covid factor did play into it a little bit,” Schwarz added. “We did lose a few drivers at the end of last year when the schools closed.”

Bus driver roles can be harder to fill because of the long process required for training and certification.

Southwest is working with school districts weekly to adhere to COVID-19 plans and stocking up on PPE.

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