School districts are accustomed to “events.” Something rattles the routine for a specific time on the school calendar, and then things return to normal. An ice storm, a teacher’s illness, a labor strike are all challenging events, but then they conclude and we all get back to business as usual again. 

COVID-19 is viewed by many as such an event. School districts are eager for it to be “over” and to get back to the way things were. But that thinking is a mistake.

In reality, COVID was a firm line on the calendar: March 2020. We can talk about how school was before that line, but everything after that date is a rapidly evolving new normal. Everything we remember of school and staffing positions from before March 2020 will never be the same again. The sooner districts accept this, the sooner they will be able to recruit and retain the staff students need. 

White background with dark yellow rectangle with dark purple text. Text reads: Insulating your district against the great resignation wages, benefits and service models in the new normal

What The Great Resignation looks like in education

Education is often seen as insulated from employment trends. Such is not the case with The Great Resignation and associated labor shortages of 2021. Specialty staff (SLP, OT, PT, Psychs, etc.) now have multiple options in not only where they want to work (schools, private practice, hospitals) but in how they provide service (onsite, online, a hybrid model). The 2020-2021 school year gave most specialists a full year of personal experience working online, and that alone has radically changed their outlook on their respective professions. District HR offices and special education district leaders need to understand, accept, and respond to this.

Last school year also pushed many teachers and school specialists to their limits, prompting them to examine their work-life balance. By the end of the school year, one in four teachers were considering leaving their jobs. Many specialists have decided to leave education for other, more desirable settings. Others are working less than full-time for the flexibility to support their own children. Others have decided to change their career entirely. The reality is that educational systems were hard-pressed to find qualified specialists each school year before COVID, and there is now even fewer personnel available.

How to thrive in the new normal

Savvy school districts will consider all of the above and change their recruitment and employment practices accordingly. They will advertise a willingness to accept specialists working partly or entirely online. They will let go of requirements to be in the building from 8-4 every day and be open to specialists setting flexible schedules that meet student and specialist needs. 

They will reframe their salary schedules to include how salaries translate to hourly rates because that’s how many clinics and private staffing firms advertise compensation. Vancouver Public Schools in Washington does this well. Below is an example of how they reflect compensation. 

They will no longer view workload as an optional discussion to have. Specialists expect black and white answers to direct questions about caseload demographics and numbers, case management expectations, extra duties such as billing, and what supports exist when building challenges require help. There will be well-thought-out and fully-funded plans for what happens when the workload exceeds specialist capacity.

When our specialists interviewed with administrators this past fall, administrators asked questions and answered questions posed by candidates. But many were quite surprised when, after approving a candidate, the specialist declined the position. This is the new normal. Specialists are in demand, and they’re working on their own terms. School district administrators who accept this quickly and adapt will successfully recruit top talent and provide high-quality services to their students.