Pandemic has compounded staffing issues at area schools

Schools in Clark and Champaign counties working to address ongoing challenges.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The coronavirus pandemic continues to cause staffing shortages and challenges in many school districts across the country, including those in Clark and Champaign counties.

Almost all school districts are experiencing shortages in teacher substitutes and bus drivers, which has caused some to rely on virtual learning or combining routes. The shortage continues to be due to COVID-19 and fewer people signing up each year to work as substitutes.

Springfield City School District Superintendent Bob Hill says although staffing challenges were present before the pandemic, it wasn’t nearly as severe.

“It has been difficult to find and retain quality substitutes in various departments for several years. The position of a substitute is a difficult one to sell, even though the district has a very competitive substitute rate of pay. Substitute work is also not always consistent, unless someone has taken a long-term substitute position,” he said. “In addition to substituting, we are currently in the middle of a nationwide educator shortage. Some of that shortage has been attributed to challenges to teachers caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Districts are working to address the ongoing staffing challenges, including Springfield which is working to be proactive in filling vacant positions.

Hill said the district’s human resources department has developed a presence on LinkedIn to help recruit a larger number of qualified candidates and they are working to develop updated procedures to retain candidates once they’re hired into the district.

“The Springfield City School District currently has 61 open positions available,” Hill said. “Last week, Springfield High School had 30 plus staff members out with COVID-19-related illnesses. Schaefer Middle School and Hayward Middle School had anywhere between one third and half of their staff absent.”

The staffing shortage has caused all districts in Clark and Champaign counties to work internally.

Northeastern Local and Urbana City School District superintendents said the need for substitutes changes regularly and has added to the workload for other staff positions.

“Some days we may need more substitute custodians than teachers and other days we may have a greater need for substitute teachers or building secretaries. It is incredibly hard to predict when and where we will need those substitutes as it is dependent on possible exposures, positive cases, and other illnesses or personal family situations,” Northeastern Superintendent John Kronour said. “While these shortages continue to strain the district and our families, we have seen teachers, kitchen staff, maintenance and custodial staff, principals, and administrators lending a hand in buildings other than their own in order to keep those buildings open.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Urbana Superintendent Charles Thiel said the district’s faculty, staff and families have been willing to step up and provide assistance needed to serve students, including with bus transportation services.

For most school districts, challenges are not only related to COVID-19, but also other typical illnesses and absences, and schools routinely have staff out each day.

“The district is always looking to hire as many substitutes as possible in any of our departments. During a normal year, substitutes are a critical part of our system and we rely on their services when our regular staff cannot be present. With COVID-19 now seemingly part of our routine, the need for them is even greater,” Hill said.

Superintendent Brian Kuhn said all teachers and support staff have felt the strain of the shortages.

“On any given day, our district has 5-6 teaching assignments that are not covered by substitute teachers. We utilize our own employees to cover internally on these days. Additionally, we struggle to find substitutes for our support staff positions which include bus drivers, food service, and custodial needs,” Kuhn said.

Some schools are offering additional pay for substitute teachers. At Tecumseh Local Schools, the district increased substitute teacher pay from $85 a day to $100, according to Superintendent Paula Crew.

“It is certainly taxing to routinely cover classes that do not have the coverage of a substitute, but we are currently able to cover with the help of our staff members and principals. The whole quarantine process can be exhausting. Our school nurses are working diligently to keep up with all of the quarantine and isolation protocol changes,” Crew said.

At Mechanicsburg Exempted Village Schools, teachers are also receiving additional period pay for coverage of classes, according to Superintendent Danielle Prohaska.

Impact on learning

As for affecting or disrupting education and learning, this is a daily challenge for school districts trying to decided to stay in-person, move to virtual learning or close.

“As it relates to staff shortages because of COVID-19, we have tried to minimize the impact to other teachers who are still in the classroom by utilizing substitutes when we are able and asking other teachers to cover classes in their planning periods. Only after we have exhausted all possibilities of teacher coverage will we combine classes together, in order to lessen the workload on our teachers and maintain an environment conducive for learning,” Hill said.

Graham Local School Assistant Superintendent Emily Smith said although the priority is to keep kids in school, the district has plans in place if the need arises to use virtual learning.

“Teaching is definitely one of the most rewarding professions, but being an educator right now, in the midst of a pandemic, is more demanding than it ever has been,” Smith said.

Substitute requirements

Recently, Senate Bill 1 was passed, which permits school districts more flexibility in educational requirements for substitute teachers. It allows schools to hire individuals who may not have a teaching or college degree to help with the shortage of substitute teachers throughout the state.

The bill states, “the reason for such necessity is to ensure school districts and schools can employ an adequate number of substitute teachers for the 2021-2022 school year to address the needs of the state arising from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

In Ohio, 97.4% of teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree and 2.6% have less than a bachelor’s degree, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education.

As a result of the passing of this bill, Tecumseh is one of the districts that offered three, full-day orientations for those who would like to become a substitute under the guidelines.

“We’ve secured over 30 additional substitute teachers through this process, which has helped with our substitute shortages,” Crew said.

Teaching profession

As the staffing shortage continues, students are still pursuing some type of teaching degree at Clark County colleges and universities.

Wittenberg has about 170 students, nearly 13% of the student body, who are studying to become teachers, according to Brian Yontz, chair and associate professor of education. Enrollment in education programs has increased about 20% since 2016-2017, but has dropped over the last two years.

“The overall enrollment at Wittenberg has decreased since 2016 which has certainly contributed to fewer students selecting to study education, but Wittenberg has a long history of preparing really good educators and we tend to attract students who are inspired to make a difference in our nation’s classrooms. This perhaps, is one reason why the enrollment in education does not follow the University’s enrollment trend,” Yontz said.

At Clark State College, there has been an increase in students pursing a teacher education transfer degree and a decline in those pursing an early childhood education degree.

There has been an increase of 30 students pursing teacher education transfer since 2018, with 82 students, and still enrolling for spring semester, according to Rhoda Sommers, Dean School of Human, Health, and Public Services. There has been a decrease of 29 students pursing early childhood education since 2018.

“While the enrollment trend in teacher education programs nationally has been on the decline in the past 10 years, based on the Clark State data, we are seeing an increase in teacher education transfer program enrollment,” Sommers said. “The Early Childhood Education Program is seeing a decline... the pandemic isn’t helping, but the decline nationally precedes the pandemic.”

Yontz said it’s clear schools are in the middle of a teacher shortage, but there are a few things that need to happen in the short term and long run.

“In terms of the long run, we’ve already begun to address this at both the university level and at the state level in how prospective teachers can access scholarships and mentoring. As far as the short term and with temporary changes to substitute teaching policies, where a bachelor’s degree is no longer required to earn a substitute teaching license, Wittenberg will be inviting the entire student body to serve as substitute teachers in Clark County schools, if they qualify for a substitute teaching license,” he said.

To help address the staffing shortages, the American Federation of Teachers has even launched a new national taskforce to help tackle widespread educator and support staff shortages.

The AFT Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force will examine causes and propose solutions for districts experiencing shortages that could disrupt recovery from the pandemic, according to a release from AFT. It will bring together union leaders representing teachers, paraprofessionals and school-related personnel to review education professions to make recommendations that enhance well-being, improve working conditions and advance careers.

“Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “Even before COVID, nurses, guidance counselors, teachers, support staff and bus drivers were facing daunting workloads and a lack of respect.”

Weingarten said the damaging part is that this situation is a spiral because a lack of support makes the job harder, which in turn leads to more shortages.

“Teachers, bus drivers, food service workers, nurses and so many other educators have been heroes during the pandemic, going above and beyond to help their kids, checking in on them day and night while paying for supplies out of their own pockets. The best way to respect and support them is to address the root causes of their stress,” Weingarten said.

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