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The Impacts of the K-12 Non-Instructional Labor Shortage on Student Success

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When you think about the start and end to a student’s day, their first and last interaction with school (in many cases) is the school bus. In fact, according to the American School Bus Council, over 25,000,000 students across the United States rely on school buses to safely transport them to and from school daily.

Of course, this number heavily fluctuated throughout the pandemic as remote and hybrid learning became the norm. But as in-person learning has widely returned in the new school year, the number of school bus drivers across the country has dropped amid nationwide labor shortages of non-instructional K-12 staff.

With that in mind, one very significant question should come front and center: What exactly is the impact of the non-instructional labor shortage on student success?

Focusing in on transportation

Paint an early morning scene. School buses are cruising along from stop to stop, some traveling through rural, isolated areas, some through bustling urban neighborhoods. As the door swings open at each stop, students board the bus and begin their journey to school. But what happens when the bus doesn’t show up at a student’s stop, or arrives 20 minutes past the normal pick-up time? It may not be the first correlation you think of, but transportation has an impact on student success, and the national school bus driver shortage is disrupting student learning in more ways than one.

Let’s look at the numbers surrounding the shortage, as well as the impacts these numbers have on K-12 students.

The shortage

In a recent EdWeek survey, 86% of school and district administrators said they “don’t have enough candidates to fill open bus driver positions” and 79% said there are “fewer applicants for bus driver positions than last year.” This has already created scheduling challenges for many school districts’ transportation departments, leading to a high percentage of altered routes. In fact, the National Association for Pupil Transportation found that 91% of school districts have modified service to elementary schools, 90% to middle schools, and 83% to high schools.

When it comes to the number of openings districts have for bus drivers, the Frontline Research & Learning Institute (FRLI) found a large jump specifically in transportation job postings in 2021. See Chart 1 below.

Chart 1


A look across the U.S.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education was forced to step in to address the situation with a joint temporary action with the U.S. Department of Transportation. In various states, school district leaders have tried to alleviate the shortage with hiring incentives or pay raises but are still struggling to fill open positions and scrambling to alter service routes.

  • In Georgia, the Cobb County Board of Education increased bus driver pay by $5.25/hr at the beginning of the school year, but they are still 200 bus drivers short.
  • New Jersey is offering $35/hr, up from $26/hr in 2021, with full individual medical benefits for the first year, but district leaders are still reporting a shortage and fear the situation may not improve.
  • Chicago Public Schools had 400 vacant bus driver positions just four days before school returned.
  • In Texas, Comal ISD implemented several “no service zones” and cut 12-14 routes from service.
  • Massachusetts deployed the national guard to help get their students to school.

The impacts on student learning

When students don’t have access to the transportation they so heavily rely on to get to and from school, a myriad of challenges arise. Though district leaders are doing their best to alleviate the stresses of the national shortage, it’s clear there just aren’t enough bus drivers across the country, and student learning is being interrupted. Here are some of the impacts:

  • Educational inequity. Transportation is an essential component of educational access for disadvantaged students and under-resourced communities. According to the Bureau of Transportation, 70% of low-income families rely on the school bus as means of transportation for their children. What if a student’s delayed drop off gets them to school late and they miss out on the school breakfast program or critical instruction time? What if parents are forced to make alternative arrangements, but don’t have the resources to do so? The impact on educational equity is very real, and many are facing scenarios such as these on a regular basis.
  • Chronic tardiness is linked to student performance. The Department of Education has found that chronic absenteeism may prevent children from reaching early learning milestones and irregular attendance can increase the likelihood of a student dropping out. Ultimately, tardiness shouldn’t be forced upon a student.
  • Irregular or poor sleep patterns may result from altered bus routes or class schedules. If students are waking up early to make it to their bus stop, it can affect mental health and academic performance. The CDC reports early school start times can impact health, academic performance, and quality of life.
  • Extracurriculars are at risk. Getting student athletes to neighboring schools or districts for sports games also appears to be an issue. Some districts may be faced with the unfortunate decision of cancelling games, competitions, and other after-school events that students are involved in.

Focusing on mental health and well-being

Students may see their school bus driver every day, but not every student sees their school counselor every day (or even weekly). But no matter the frequency, both positions have direct impacts on student learning and success. So… what happens when there aren’t enough school counselors or psychologists and how does that gap impact students?

Over the last few years, K-12 students have been experiencing higher rates of anxiety, stress, and depression. These rates have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, and many districts have reported an increase in their students seeking in-school mental health services. However, with the nationwide shortage of school counselors, psychiatrists, and other mental health staff, some students may not be getting the mental health support or wellness guidance they seek.

What do the numbers say?

To outline how widespread and staggering the mental health staff shortage is, let’s analyze the recommended ratios per district compared to the current actual national ratios.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a student-to-school-counselor ratio of 250:1 but the current ratio across the United States is a staggering 464:1. This translates to 8,000,000 students without access to a school counselor.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) recommends a student-to-school-psychiatrist ratio of 500:1 but the current national ratio is 1211:1, with some states reaching much hire. Maine is the only that meets this ratio.


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The impacts on student learning

School counselors and psychiatrists are key to developing a healthy school environment, providing a safe space for learning, and helping students establish greater connections with their peers. So when students don’t have access to these staff members and their services, it’s a risk to both their mental health and their academic success. Like the bus driver shortage, this shortage poses a challenge for educational equity. Check out these facts from the American School Counselor Association:

  • “Black students are more likely than their White peers to identify their school counselor as the person who had the most influence on their thinking about postsecondary education.”
  • “Research links the student-to-school-counselor ratios that meet the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommendation in high-poverty schools to better academic outcomes for students, such as improved attendance, fewer disciplinary incidents, and higher graduation rates.”

What’s behind the non-instructional shortage?

The Frontline Research and Learning Institute (FRLI) recently published a research brief, “The Longitudinal Recruiting and Hiring Landscape for Non-Instructional Education Employees,” that analyzed data from 1,160 public school districts across 48 states. The brief explores the potential causes of the shortage across the country, the supply and demand of non-instructional staff, and how much time non-instructional positions have taken to be filled. The non-instructional job postings are categorized as one of the following: facilities, food services, office support and other administrative roles, outside of school activity programs, security/safety, substitutes, teacher’s assistant/aide, technology services, transportation services, and tutoring. Here is a summary of the key findings for what’s behind the non-instructional shortage:

  • There has been a slight increase in non-instructional job postings.
  • The number of applications per posting has continued to decrease.
  • The decreasing number of applications for open positions results in a reduced pool of qualified candidates.
  • The shortage is due to a supply issue (not enough candidates) rather than a demand issue (employees leaving the position).

What districts can do to combat the shortage

While the non-instructional staff shortage is widespread, there are actionable steps school leaders can take that may help minimize the number of non-instructional open positions. Here are 8 strategies outlined by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute to help navigate the non-instructional staff shortage:

  1. Technology can help expedite the recruiting process and easily post openings.
  2. Don’t wait for job seekers! Proactively reach out to candidates to diversify your pool.
  3. Ask your employees to identify potential non-instructional staff with community outreach.
  4. Make sure your district stands out! Ensure your job postings highlight culture, unique benefits, or professional learning opportunities.
  5. Provide your staff with feedback and support individual growth.
  6. Develop a culture where the voices of non-instructional staff are heard.
  7. Reduce friction for candidates and improve the efficiency of your processes.
  8. Frequently communicate and engage with potential candidates.

Frontline Recruiting & Hiring can help districts ensure that open non-instructional positions are being filled in a timely manner. With Frontline’s job board, K12JobSpot, your district can easily reach thousands of non-instructional candidates across the country. Are you ready to combat the non-instructional staff shortage to ensure student success and wellbeing? You can learn more about Frontline Recruiting & Hiring here.

Interested in more on the non-instructional labor shortage?

Check out Frontline Research & Learning Institute’s full research brief, “The Longitudinal Recruiting and Hiring Landscape for Non-Instructional Education Employees,” for an in-depth look into the data and more recommendations to help fill these positions.
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