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COVID-19 compounds staffing issues at Las Vegas schools


Las Vegas has the fifth-biggest school district in the U.S. And for a long time, it's had a problem with staffing shortages. The pandemic is making it worse. A sign of the times - some principals are filling in as custodians and cafeteria workers.

Here's Nate Hegyi from the Mountain West News Bureau.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: It's mid-morning at Woolley Elementary School in North Las Vegas. Principal Joseph Uy is walking the hallways.

JOSEPH UY: Good morning. Hey, Friday tomorrow - I'll see you tomorrow. Yeah?

HEGYI: Uy is a jolly guy. And he puts on a good face for his students and staff. But behind the scenes...

UY: Honestly, I'm tired.

HEGYI: That's because of severe staffing shortages across the district. His school has 15 vacancies right now. And he's had a hard time finding subs when people get sick. That means some mornings he's vacuuming the hallways before the kids show up because he doesn't have custodial help. Other days he's teaching classes. Right now his cafeteria supervisor is gone.

UY: She's out today. And I believe she's also out tomorrow.

HEGYI: He was lucky to get a sub for her. The district has a shortage of food service workers, so it often can't send subs. When that happens, Uy washes up and helps serve lunch.

UY: You just go in the kitchen, start stuffing some food in the little plastic bags, hand it out to the kids, make sure the kids have enough time to eat, so then they can go back and do what they're supposed to do in the classroom.

HEGYI: It's overwhelming, especially because Uy is also dealing with grief. His mom recently died from COVID-19.

UY: I'm exhausted. I have taken a few days off to take care of myself. But, you know, it's a lot.

DANICA HAYS: We just don't have enough folks in our building supporting our students.

HEGYI: That's Danica Hays. She's an education professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And she says staffing shortages in the district aren't new. The county doesn't offer very competitive pay in its public schools. And the city is one of the fastest growing in the country.

HAYS: So there are more kids, a greater need for school buildings. There's more need for education and school personnel.

HEGYI: So this was already a problem. But Hays says COVID-19 has just made it worse.

HAYS: We've seen job openings double because of the pandemic, not just in educator shortages, but in other staff positions.

HEGYI: The Clark County School District has more than a thousand job vacancies right now - not just teachers, but bus drivers, teachers' assistants and custodians. The district says it saw a wave of retirements last year. And there's been unease about returning to work because of COVID-19. Also, like the rest of the West, housing prices in Las Vegas have jumped by about 20% over the past year. But custodians start at about $13 an hour. Instructional assistants make $11 an hour.

SHAWINA TIMS: They do not want to work for that anymore.

HEGYI: Shawina Tims works with kids in special education at Woolley Elementary. And she gets why some of her colleagues found work elsewhere.

TIMS: Family Dollar's paying them $18 an hour, so they don't have to come in and take it anymore.

HEGYI: The shortage has extended to substitutes as well. The need for them has skyrocketed during the pandemic because more instructors are either calling in sick or are quarantining. But the district can't hire or retain enough of them.

Andrea Mesa is a first-grade teacher. She got ill about a month ago and was out for nearly a week.

ANDREA MESA: It wasn't COVID, fortunately, but it took a long time to get the results back of the COVID tests for me to be able to return.

HEGYI: The district was able to find subs for a couple of those days, but not every day that Mesa was sick. Those days, other teachers and staff had to give up their breaks to take over her classes.

MESA: I feel guilty because we're all stressed out. And for me to be out sick, I feel like I create more stress.

HEGYI: But she's also grateful to those who filled in for her to make sure that the kids at Woolley Elementary keep learning.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "MY FRIEND COMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.