As students prepare to return to school, districts scramble to fill hundreds of open staffing positions.
From teachers to bus drivers to school nurses, the vacancies threaten to disrupt school operations across the state.
"If we don't get these vacancies filled, the bottom line is the kids will suffer," said Corey Odom, a North Carolina teacher.
Odom has been a teacher for more than two decades. He currently works with exceptional middle school students at Weldon City Schools in Halifax County.
While it's normal for districts to have some vacancies before the start of the year, this year feels different for many educators.
"I think it might be the worst because COVID," Odom said. "We have a lot of teachers, especially veteran teachers have some underlying health issues, and some are facing retirement."
When these positions go unfilled, teachers, staff and students feel the stress. In a rural county, Odom said he's used to filling in when positions don't get filled.
"A lot of teachers have been chipping in and helping out with some of the teacher shortages. We might combine the class or we might spit the class in two that way the teachers will get efficient instruction that day," Odom said. He also said many teachers are coming out of retirement to fill the emerging gaps.
His district isn't the only one feeling the strain. In the Triangle, Durham Public Schools reported earlier this month around 100 more open positions than this time last year. A majority for the openings for exceptional children teachers and elementary teachers.
Despite repeated requests, Wake County Publics Schools has not released how many vacancies they face. At a recent board meeting, the district reported a 2.4% teacher vacancy but an 11% vacancy rate for teacher assistants. The district usually has a 1.3% vacancy rate, according to a 2019-2020 state report.
Cumberland County Schools' vacancies were in line with last year's number with around 90 open positions.
Many districts have turned to financial incentives to entice job seekers. Orange County Schools recently approving $10,000 bonus for certain positions. Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Wake County and Durham County also reporting signing bonuses for hard-to-fill positions.
Across the state exceptional children positions, K-5 teachers, and math teachers are in short supply this year according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Individual districts are also reporting shortages in bus drivers and teacher assistants.
Brad Johnson the Transportation Director with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools said in addition to bonuses, the district has increased hourly pay and offered referral bonuses.
"One thing that we know will happen will be longer bus rides, so that we can maximize the capacities on our buses, and they may see some late buses in the afternoons," Johnson explained.
The incentives are paying off. CJ McDonald came all the way from Greensboro to fill one of the bus driver vacancies for the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools.
"It's been kind of rough since COVID hit and job placement has been kind of tough to get so I said, you know, I will try something different," McDonald said.
An increasing amount of teachers across the nation are reporting the pandemic accelerated their plans to leave the profession, according to a National Education Association survey.
Odom said he believes low pay is the main factor behind the vacancies.
North Carolina ranks 30th in the nation for average teacher salary, according to a 2020 National Education Association report.
"As things are going up, you know, our salary continues to stay the same, so I feel like something needs to be done to keep the younger educators in the business," Odom said. He admitted he's had to work multiple part-time jobs throughout his 23 years teaching.
Education advocates agree.
"We need the General Assembly to step up and give a little better pay raise to teachers at the base level than what we're seeing. But yeah, it really does come down, mostly to, you know, sort of working conditions and salary," said Keith Poston, the president of WakeEd Partnership, a nonprofit committed to supporting teachers and students in Wake County Public Schools.
Despite the increasing challenges, Odom said he remains optimistic and driven by his passion for students.
"I think we will be able to make up some of the gaps but still we need some help," he said.