A labor shortage hits West Linn-Wilsonville School District, mirroring a national trend. But the district is working hard to serve its students.

Despite usually spending her workday in the administration office, Nutrition Specialist Manager Lindsey Flores has recently needed to split some of her time in the school cafeteria kitchen.

Although the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's academic year kicked off a few weeks ago and students are getting settled into their routines, some staff positions are still waiting to be filled.

The district's predicament echoes a national trend of open positions for nutrition specialists and substitute teachers. Although representatives from the district emphasize schools continue to be "operational," they still need more hands on deck.

Nutrition specialists make it work, despite odds

A combination of factors are causing the cafeteria shortages, Flores said.

As the pandemic closed schools, the district's nutrition department lost many staff members for a variety of reasons; some sought other jobs while others moved to another district. But now that the schools are open fully to the more than 9,900 students in the district, the number of necessary staff members has increased. Yet the district is still working with limited numbers.

"When you're in person, with every student every day, we're looking at an upward trend of continuing to need more staff because we're serving significantly more people per day," Flores said.

The district's new federally-funded free meal program adds additional strain onto kitchen staff, as more students have taken advantage of school lunches.

"We are needing to hire more people to be able to accommodate all that and that's what you're seeing nationwide, that same kind of ripple effect," Flores said.

The district currently has 25 nutritional specialists and needs about 10 more to be fully staffed. To fill the gaps, nutrition specialists are working more hours, faster, and putting more on their plates, Flores said.

"I think every day is more unknown," she said, "I'm jumping into the field a lot more … to either cover for staff or just help with production."

The shortage also impacts distribution lines and the products ordered. Flores said schools have begun purchasing food that is pre-wrapped or takes minimal production efforts to serve.

The district has also started taking food requests from receivers to account numbers better and minimize food waste.

A survey by the School Nutrition Association found that staff shortages were a top concern amongst school cafeteria professionals. Respondents identified supply chain issues and distributing food to students as another leading worry.

Despite barriers, Flores emphasized that the shortage has no impact on students receiving their meals. Also, she said she is grateful for how supportive the community has been and is continually impressed by her staff.

"I've been blown away by their resilience and their ability to get creative time and time again, even with the change," said Flores.

Aftermath of previous teacher shortage impacts temporary pool

Another sector of the district hit by a shortage is substitute teachers.

According to the West Linn-Wilsonville School District website, the district has 14 open positions for substitute or temporary positions, ranging in focus from special education to physical education.

A substitute teacher bounces around from school to school filling in for a class period or two, whereas a temporary teacher is a long-term commitment, taking over a class for a staff member on maternity or medical leave.

The dearth in substitute and temporary teachers may be related to a previous teacher shortage that impacted the state.

"The substitute pool dwindled across the state, as there was something of a teacher shortage statewide," West Linn-Wilsonville School District Director of Communications Andrew Kilstrom said.

While the state experienced a teacher shortage, substitute workers began filling those full-time positions. Now as the district is looking for temporary staff, and because the occupational pool is more scarce, filling those positions may become a challenge.

Right now, the district is working with a pool of around 20 substitute teachers. When none of them are available, schools will seek out help from the administration. Kilstrom said an administrator or instructional coordinator may step up to teach.

However, the district emphasizes that schools are operational, and the shortages are not yet a concern.

"We're operating and not in jeopardy of (reverting to) in-person learning or closing a department," Kilstrom said.

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