When the 12:45 bell rang at Urbana Middle School on Wednesday, signaling the beginning of eighth grade lunch, Sharon Eburg took a deep breath.
“That’s our cue to rock and roll,” she said, rising from her seat.
Within three minutes, the line of students waiting for food stretched the entire length of the cafeteria. Eburg was the only person serving them. Her sole coworker, Linda Hollins, manned the register.
In a typical year, they’d have double the staff on hand.
Clad in a cheery Halloween-themed blouse, Eburg greeted each student brightly. “Hi, honey,” she’d say, her hands flying over fast-emptying trays of mozzarella sticks and chicken patties. “What would you like?”
For 27 years, Eburg has doled out lunches to Frederick County Public Schools students. Now, she also serves as president of the union that represents the system’s support employees. Bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, instructional assistants and more than 150 other occupations are under her purview.
In her nearly three decades of experience, Eburg said, she’s never faced a year as tough as this one.
“Employees are just worn out,” she said. “I don’t know of any school that is fully staffed like they used to be.”
FCPS had 226 vacancies in support staff roles as of Friday, system spokesman Brandon Oland wrote in an email. For Eburg and the other workers, the shortage has meant longer days and, often, a hefty emotional toll.
“We feel like we’re invisible,” Eburg said.
The district’s employment numbers are based on full-time equivalency, meaning that an unfilled part-time position could count as just half a vacancy. Using that metric, Oland said the district was short 66 special education instructional assistants, 23 custodians and 19 bus drivers — most of whom drive at least three routes per day.
Sign language interpreters, secretaries, food service workers and maintenance staff are also in short supply.
Despite offering hiring bonuses and working to extend community outreach, Oland said, the district doesn’t have enough applicants.
“We are making a concerted effort to make sure we are filling those employment gaps that we have,” said FCPS public affairs director Eric Louérs-Phillips. “It’s 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 announced Wednesday that schools would close three hours early every Friday due to staffing woes.
Staff needed the extra unencumbered time each week to “conduct all planning, deep cleaning, class material preparation, IEP/SAT meetings, etc.” that they were struggling to complete otherwise, officials wrote in a document explaining the decision.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent available data, more than 460,000 public education jobs were open in July of this year, compared with less than half that amount at the same point in 2020.
Shortages in a handful of roles have a “domino effect” across an entire school, Eburg said, forcing staff to pile extra work onto their existing duties.
FCPS teachers, for example, have been donning hair nets to help serve lunches, said Frederick County Teachers Association President Missy Dirks. Long lunch lines give students less time to eat, which gives custodians less time to clean up.
Elaine Crawford, an officer with the Frederick Association of School Support Employees, said some FCPS central office staff with commercial drivers licenses have started driving school buses on the side. And still, nearly every day, some buses across the county are delayed by 30 minutes or more as drivers are forced to cover extra routes.
That means teachers have to stay past their contracted hours to supervise students during dismissal, Dirks said.
Tonya Albaugh, a custodian at Sabillasville Elementary School, said the staffing struggles have required her to go in on Saturdays, working for free to finish the tasks she couldn’t get to during the week.
The post-pandemic morale among her colleagues is low, she said.
“We’re all depressed,” Albaugh said. “It’s horrible.”
Nonteaching staff make up half of the K-12 workforce, which numbers 6 million people across the country, according to a 2014 study by the Thomas Fordham Institute.
“They’re the first to open up the schools, so they work very early in the mornings. They are the ones closing down the schools, so they’re working at night,” Crawford said. “And during the day, they are doing millions and zillions of things.”
Support employees are paid far less than teachers, on average: While the median pay in May 2020 for kindergarten and elementary teachers was $41,950, the median pay for a K-12 teaching assistant was $28,900, according to the BLS.
And people in hourly roles like food service and transportation often make even less. Eburg said people in her department usually start off working three hours per day at $13 per hour. Recruitment is difficult, she said, when her colleagues realize they could make $17 per hour or more at a local gas station.
But both Crawford and Eburg said the reasons for the shortage likely extend beyond the issue of pay.
“If [FCPS] had all the money in the world … would that get us the drivers or fill the shortage area? I’m not so sure that’s true,“ Crawford said. “Outside of the school system, almost every corporation, every business, is scrambling to hire employees.”
The district is hosting a job fair next week, and it has advertised $1,500 signing bonuses in recent months.
But in the meantime, some overworked support employees are nearing their limits. Albaugh said she’s counting down the days until she can leave her custodial position and begin nursing classes at Frederick Community College.
During a five-minute break between lunch shifts on Wednesday, Eburg sat in an office decorated with inspirational quotes and pictures of flamingos, answering emails.
More and more, she said, she’s receiving messages from workers who aren’t sure how much longer they can last.
“They’re tired,” she said simply. “They are discouraged.”