By Jake Griffin
In any other year, a drop of nearly 1,350 students could have resulted in fewer staff at U-46 schools in the Elgin Area School District.
But 2021 wasn’t just any year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They’ve survived some pretty tough times, and I’m including everyone,” U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said. “It was something that was unprecedented in our lifetime.”
Of the 103 suburban school districts in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, more than half added full-time educators and other certified staff for the 2020-2021 school year, although around 80% reported fewer students in the Year before.
Together, the 103 districts reported 14,201 fewer students for the school year that ended in 2021 than for the year that ended in 2020. However, these districts combined to add 650 “certified employees ” full time.
That’s according to a Daily Herald analysis of enrollment and staffing figures provided by districts to the Illinois State Board of Education through warrants. Annual state of affairs reports for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.
Data for the school year that just ended — fiscal year 2022 — won’t be available until December, state education officials said.
“No one could have predicted what was going to happen at the end of 2020,” said Terri McHugh, executive director of community relations for Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54. “We had budgeted for a reduction in staff before the pandemic. But obviously things have changed.”
District 54 reported nearly 750 fewer students in 2021, but added five full-time educators as the district processed mandates for smaller class sizes to meet social distancing requirements and virtual learning programs for students who could not or did not want to attend people classes.
“Two different student populations”
Many districts began the 2020-2021 school year with virtual learning options or hybrid learning plans, where students spent alternating days or weeks attending classes in person or online at the home.
“It was like we almost had two different student populations,” said Itasca Elementary District 10 superintendent Craig Benes. “Our council wanted to offer families a choice.”
District 10 added 10 certified full-time staff in 2021, even though it had 3% fewer students than the previous school year.
Addressing Staff Challenges
School district officials said they are addressing staffing issues in several ways. In many cases, full-time non-teaching positions have been cut to free up money for additional teachers. A number of part-time positions have also been cut to create full-time positions.
District officials also reported an increased need for senior professionals.
“We wanted to make sure we had enough social workers, psychologists and counselors because the needs of students are very different these days,” said Peter Gill, spokesman for Mundelein Elementary District 75.
Costs and Benefits
According to the 103 districts’ annual financial reports filed with the ISBE, the cost of salaries and benefits increased in 85 of the 103 districts from 2020 to 2021 by a combined amount of $133,897,366.
Contract requirements account for some of the increase, district officials are quick to note, but the additional staff also contributed to higher labor costs.
Fortunately, much of these additional costs were offset by reimbursements from the federal pandemic-related grant fund.
According to ISBE officials, Illinois’ 851 school districts are eligible for more than $7 billion in pandemic-related federal grants. Districts must request refunds by the end of September 2024.
“I wish I had more time to spend those funds, but we came up with a plan in the time available,” Sanders said. “I think our kids learned a lot during the pandemic, but there was ground that was lost both academically and socially or emotionally that won’t be made up in a year.”
U-46, the second-largest school district in the state, is eligible for more than $102 million in pandemic-related federal grant refunds, according to ISBE records. The district has received about a quarter of them so far.
Officials in many suburban school districts are reporting staffing issues as a result of the pandemic. Teachers who might normally have stayed on for a few years despite their maximum pension benefits are stepping down, while other educators are leaving earlier than expected.
Labor shortages in some districts have translated into savings for taxpayers.
“We ended the year with an unexpected surplus because we did not have the normal costs that we might have had, so we have reduced registration costs and are preparing a property tax abatement to help mitigate the blow for some of our residents,” Huntley said. Community School District 158 Superintendent Scott Rowe.
But there are also additional costs incurred. Finding substitute teachers was also difficult.
“We were already paying the second highest rate in DuPage County for our subscriptions, but we had to increase it again,” said Carol Stream Elementary District 93 superintendent David Hill.
Drop in registrations
Hill’s District was one of the few suburban districts to see declining enrollment, full-time staffing, and staffing costs from 2020 to 2021.
District 93 saw an almost 6% drop in enrollment from 2020 to 2021 and also reported 12 fewer full-time certified staff during this time.
There has been a national trend of declining enrollment in recent years, but Hill believes many districts have seen steeper than normal declines due to the pandemic.
Many parents chose homeschooling or sent their children to private schools where mask mandates were often more relaxed or not enforced.
Barrington Unit District 220 reported a 6.8% drop in enrollment from 2020 to 2021, which translated to 602 fewer students.
“We sent out a survey to all the families that came out to find out why,” said Melissa Byrne, District 220 Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning. “We hope to see more of these families return.”