For most of Patricia Hand's seven years as principal at Fridley High School, her team of teachers and support staff heading into September was set by mid-June. This year, with four weeks to go before the first day of school, Hand is still scrambling to hire.

And she's worried about what that might mean for students.

"When you're not fully staffed, the whole system suffers," Hand said.

Several Minnesota school districts say they're grappling with higher staff vacancies than last summer. And even though most open positions are for paraeducators and other support staff, the ripple effect means students with the most acute learning needs will have the fewest resources.

Staffing crunches in other states are leading policymakers and school leaders to make adjustments to ensure there's a teacher in every classroom come fall. Some districts in rural Texas are moving to four-day weeks, while Florida will allow military veterans to teach for up to five years without further accreditation.

The abundance of staff vacancies in Minnesota schools isn't new. The state Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board in a 2021 study found that 70% of districts reported being affected by teacher shortages in the 2019-20 school year, and more than a quarter reported leaving at least one position unfilled.

While school districts have seen an infusion of federal aid intended to address the educational and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on students, they're navigating one of the most difficult hiring environments they've ever faced.

The Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul districts began this summer with 450 openings each, or about 6 and 8% of their workforces. In St. Paul, overall staff vacancies totaled 284 last year.

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district had 229 openings at the beginning of the summer, 64 more than at the same time last year. District spokesman Tony Taschner said about 5% of teacher positions and 13% of paraeducator positions were vacant.

Minneapolis Public Schools officials declined a Star Tribune's request for vacancy numbers. The district said there were "1,000 employee transactions" that required processing at the start of the summer. Spokeswoman Crystina Lugo-Beach said the district began its hiring process later than usual this year due to the midyear budget adjustment that followed the spring teachers strike.

The infusion of federal cash coupled with competitive wages from other employers and increasing challenges within the profession have combined to create a perfect storm: District officials have the money to hire staff, but have fewer applicants for those open positions than anticipated.

In Anoka-Hennepin, for instance, district leaders have set aside more than $940,000 to hire remedial math and English instructors and about $5 million to hire one-on-one tutors. None of those positions existed last year.

A National Education Association survey of 3,600 educators from across the country found that more than half were considering leaving the profession. Although some researchers say worries over a mass teacher shortage are overblown, experts say increasingly the hostile public attitude toward educators makes it difficult to both recruit and retain teachers.

"The environment for them, some of them chose not to come back," said Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

For positions like paraeducators — entry-level school employees who conduct specific services that vary from language translation and tutoring to classroom management and computer lab support — principals are jostling for position with fast-food restaurants and gas stations that offer similar or higher wages in much less stressful jobs.

"Some districts have had a lot of success with filling their para positions, but it has come with a lot of additional work and some additional compensation," Henton said.

In Fridley, Hand said job candidates in previous years have come into interviews having done their research about the school they're applying to work in, and might have even spoken to a current employee to get the lay of the land.

"Now the mentality is more like, 'What have you got for me?'" she said. "We have to market our schools, more so than we did in the past."

Henton said about 9 in 10 metro-area districts are still struggling to fill vacancies. Both she and Hand said the largest deficit is in support staff, ranging from paraprofessionals to custodial workers and secretaries.

When those positions go unfilled, Henton said, educators take on greater workloads. They may be asked to support another teacher during their prep period, or they'll spend more time before or after school grading assignments.

Hand is down one secretary. And while that means other office staff take on an extra duty or two, it's up to her and her vice principal to fill in the gaps.

"It's a bit of a juggling act," she said.

Henton said the current crop of staffing problems requires long-term investments in education — including some measures the state Legislature failed to pass during the most recent session.

The school administrators association's legislative plan for next year includes a push for more funding to shore up wages for educators and support staff. Henton said she also wants policymakers at the state and federal levels to consider student loan forgiveness for new and current teachers. Henton and district leaders say diversity should also be tantamount to those efforts.

Hand, who is white, said she recruits candidates from diverse backgrounds to make sure every child in the Fridley district — where 45% of students are Black and 15% are Latino — have at least one educator who can relate to their lived experiences.

"You don't want to see all Patties in every English classroom," Hand said.

Despite the challenges of navigating the shallow depths of this year's talent pool, Hand said she is optimistic about the coming school year.

Around this time last year, district leaders across the state were rewriting mask policies as the spread of the delta variant caused a surge of COVID infections. By January, Fridley, like other districts, had to pivot to remote learning as staffers fell ill left and right leaving wide gaps in staffing.

"Last year was my most difficult year as an educator," Hand said. "I won't have to say that this year. I just know I won't have to."