Rural Iowa schools grapple with statewide staffing shortage

Published: Dec. 13, 2021 at 6:00 PM CST
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MORAVIA, Iowa (KYOU) - Sam Swenson fills several roles in the district. He’s the superintendent, elementary principal, and, this year, filling in as a bus driver. It’s to make up for several staff shortages across the district. Staff across Moravia are having to take on multiple roles to fill staff shortages. Even for key positions for science or elementary school teachers. “I never thought I’d see the day where there’s be a shortage of elementary teachers,” Swenson explains. “But we’re there now.”

With 383 students in district, having every position filled is vital. And in his 25 years as an educator, the Superintendent has seen fewer and fewer applicants for positions. “I remember 10 years ago if you had an elementary position open you’d have 80 applicants. Two or three years ago you’d be in the teens. Now…we didn’t fill two.”

The Moravia school board is trying to find ways not only to attract candidates but to retain positions: signing bonuses, switching salary schedules, even talks of going to a four day week.

The Superintendent says his options are limited in a small district. “You’ve got to creative and think outside the box.”

There are 3,651 openings in schools across the state. And while only 11 are in Moravia, when staff across the district numbers less than a hundred, those numbers are vital.

It’s an issue the Iowa State Education Association recognizes. A statement from the organization’s president calls the situation dire: “Chronic underfunding, overcrowded classrooms, and disrespect for the professionals who work with our children every day have driven what we are seeing today. The Iowa State Education Association has been warning about this vortex for years and we know that fixing it will take a concerted effort by all stakeholders.

“The Iowa Legislature needs to ensure educators, students and the public education system are a top priority. Public school employees have been working under adverse conditions for years. Educator and student health and wellbeing must be at the top of this list. The pandemic coupled with the hyper partisan narrative surrounding public education has exacerbated a crisis that needs to be fixed.

“We call on all education stakeholders to address this issue immediately with clear and substantial solutions like increasing compensation, retaining, and attracting the professionals we need in our buildings, addressing the health and wellbeing of educators and students, improving the working, and learning environments in our schools and respecting education professionals for the vital roles they play.”

But for Moravia, that’s easier said than done. And the Superintendent worries about what would happen if he loses just one or two more positions. “When does it become too much to do the patch job? We’re going to do it until we can’t do it no more. But when does it become too much? That’s what we’re all scared of. If it gets worse, it’s going to affect the education of our students.”

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