RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – As state leaders enter closed-door negotiations on the budget, teachers are urging them to prioritize addressing staffing shortages in schools that they say have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s bad. I mean, I’ve never seen it like this before,” said Justin Parmenter, a 7th grade English teacher in Charlotte and a regional director for the North Carolina Association of Educators.

School districts across the state have reported challenges in hiring for various positions, such as bus drivers, substitutes, specialty teachers and others.

As other employees try to step in to fill those voids, Parmenter said that’s led to kids being dropped off to school and back home late and teachers trying to instruct kids in overcrowded classrooms.

“When there’s still so much danger, particularly for our unvaccinated children, cramming a lot of kids into a small space is not ideal,” he said. “In the middle of a really difficult time for all of us, it’s not at all the experience we want our students to be having.”

Republicans in the General Assembly this week reached an agreement among themselves on a budget proposal to take to Gov. Roy Cooper (D). They’re keeping that agreement confidential initially to see what changes Cooper will request or if he’d sign off on it.

The House, Senate and Cooper all have released competing proposals this year for how to fund schools.

Cooper and the House both proposed bringing pay for bus drivers and other noncertified school employees to a minimum of $15 per hour.

The House proposed average pay increases for teachers of 5.5 percent over two years, while the Senate proposed 3 percent. Cooper wants 10 percent.

The amount of a raise to give teachers was one of the sticking points two years ago that led to a stalemate over the state budget.

“We really haven’t seen any kind of efforts toward bipartisan work and compromise. So, hopefully, we can start to change that,” said Parmenter.

Some school districts are offering one-time bonuses and other incentives to try to hire for the hardest-to-fill positions.

When asked about the staffing issues in schools, House Speaker Tim Moore (R), said, “Of course, we’re going to make sure funding is there to fill these positions. But, look, the schools are like a lot of businesses out here.”

“Not just these positions, but look at the number of employers around this region, around this state, who are begging to find folks to work,” he said, blaming recent federal stimulus programs for disincentivizing people to work.

Parmenter pushed back on that, saying, “This problem has been going on for a lot longer than that. Our enrollment in educator preparation programs has been on the decline for years now.”

Hanging over all of this is a deadline a judge set of Oct. 18 for state leaders to enact the Leandro plan, a multi-billion-dollar strategy for improving schools and ensuring North Carolina meets its constitutional obligation to provide kids a “sound, basic education.”

Cooper proposed fully funding the first two years of the plan, while Republicans called for funding portions of it.

“It’s not only, of course, the amount of money. We’re being very strategic about where we’re spending it, making sure that we’re really going to try to get funds out there to help those at-risk students,” Moore said. “There are certain areas of this state that are higher poverty. And, in those higher-poverty areas, you have a lot of limitations for those students that you really need to focus on.”

Moore said he doesn’t believe the judge has the authority to compel the General Assembly to spend the money called for in the Leandro plan.

A commission Cooper started passed a resolution this week calling for fully funding the plan, noting the unprecedented amount unreserved cash the state has on hand and a mutli-billion-dollar surplus forecast in the next two years.

This week Progress NC launched an initiative asking teachers, parents and other to submit to them examples of how funding issues in schools have impacted them as they call for lawmakers to implement the Leandro plan.