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When high school teacher Jennifer Lee came down with COVID-19-induced pneumonia during winter break, first-year teacher Hana Oglesby-Hendrix “adopted” her class.
The two teachers share a portable building at Harker Heights High School in Killeen Independent School District, and substitutes are harder to come by than in previous years. Since the beginning of January, Oglesby-Hendrix has regularly rushed to the door separating the two classrooms to make sure Lee’s students have everything they need, sometimes interrupting her own work if a student walks in late or needs help with an assignment. She receives supplemental pay, up to $120 per day.
Lee’s students regularly share their unhappiness with the arrangement. "They basically have become virtual students because that's where most of their work is," Oglesby-Hendrix said.
Texas school districts, like those across the country, are having trouble keeping their classrooms staffed as teachers stay home for COVID-related quarantine or isolation and the well of substitute teachers is drier than in past years. Like many other industries requiring in-person work during the pandemic, schools are being disrupted by the persistent employee absences and the inability to easily find replacements. School leaders are coming up with solutions on the fly: tagging in paraprofessionals and administrators to take over for teachers, combining multiple classes in a room and even reverting to virtual school for days at a time.
Texas is now requiring all school districts to offer in-person instruction with few exceptions. But school leaders and teachers know that, even with more students back in classrooms, normalcy is close to impossible until the pandemic is fully under control.
“Anything that you’re doing that’s adding instability to that environment is going to lower your students’ ability to uptake knowledge,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “To think that’s not going to affect the learning of students whether they’re virtual or in person — it’s going to impact it.”
Lee, a family and consumer sciences teacher who is part of her local teachers union, started to feel sick on Christmas Day, eventually driving herself to the hospital when she couldn’t breathe. Throughout the crisis, she wondered fearfully: Who is going to teach my students?
At the beginning of the school year, Harker Heights High administrators had sent an email warning they were anticipating a substitute shortage and asking neighboring teachers to “adopt” one another’s classes in case of an emergency.
Even once she knew her teaching neighbor was taking over her class, Lee worried about how her students would take her absence. "They get frustrated. They come to class and they never know if they are going to see their teachers. It's kind of become the new norm to walk into a new classroom and go, 'Oh, I guess my teacher has COVID, there's a sub here,'" she said. "They never know when or whether they will get their teacher back."
She sent an email to her students' families explaining that she was sick, that students were not exposed and that she wouldn't be back for at least another week. She promised to post their assignments on their online learning system and said she would start grading as soon as she could. "While I am out, recovery and rest have to be my priority, so I am not checking my messages and emails daily. Please be patient in waiting or a response," Lee wrote.
For a few weeks in the fall, Lee covered for a teacher in the same class at a different campus, posting lessons and recorded videos for both sets of students until administrators found a full-time teacher. She is most concerned about students' mental health needs, noticing that every time a teacher is absent, students wonder if that teacher is dead. "It's kind of like they're constantly braced for someone to die," she said, fighting back tears.
National studies show that substitute teachers are harder to find than in past years, resulting in some districts lowering their standards for education requirements. In Texas, each school district or region sets requirements for hiring substitute teachers, which may not include a teaching certificate or bachelors degree. Some Texas districts are also increasing pay and lowering requirements to attract more substitutes, according to local news reports.
Studies show that schools with higher needs and fewer resources already had a hard time finding substitute teachers. When districts struggle to find substitutes, they have to get creative. "To be able to get a substitute teacher, it's almost like winning the lottery right now," said Priscilla Dilley, who runs a network of five public schools inside Fort Worth ISD. "Staff that don't traditionally have a classroom per se are the ones covering our classes for us."
Last academic year, 68% of teacher absences in schools Dilley oversees were filled by a substitute; this school year so far, only 38% of teacher absences have been filled by a substitute.
Two days before school let out for winter break, Seguin Independent School District had to require all high schoolers to learn remotely so it could use that school's employees to fill in at the elementary and middle schools. Paraprofessionals, office staff and administrators from the high school headed over to the understaffed campuses so those students could continue to learn, said Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez.
More teachers in Seguin ISD, outside of San Antonio, have resigned or retired this year than at this point the previous academic year, exacerbating the problem. About 80% of students are learning in person, compared to half when the school year began. So far, the district has not been given COVID-19 vaccines to distribute to eligible teachers.
"One of the things that I have communicated is that we are prepared to continue operating the way we are right now in the fall. And even if there are additional vaccines available, I don't anticipate significant changes coming when we start school again in '21-'22," Gutierrez said.
Substitute teachers are especially hard to come by in rural districts without the added problem of a pandemic. And rural teachers are accustomed to taking on several roles and covering for their peers. Now the problem is worse.
“We don’t have a great number of subs we can pull from, so we have to do a lot of modifying and adjusting and combining and filling in,” said Follett Independent School District Superintendent Jamie Copley. “I’ve filled in classes.”
Copley also filled in as principal of the district’s single campus for two weeks in January when she was out with COVID-19, returning the favor from November when the principal filled in for her. Fortunately, very few students have tested positive for COVID-19 in the isolated Panhandle district. But to date, about six or seven employees have tested positive, a small number but significant percentage of the district’s staff of 30.
“Until everybody is vaccinated or the virus is contained … we’re going to be dealing with these issues. Students coming in and out and staff coming in and out, which is difficult,” Copley said. “But our goal has not changed, which is to provide a quality education for our students.”
Lee, the teacher in Killeen, returned to school Monday. She no longer needs supplemental oxygen and has her symptoms — severe coughing, fever flare-ups, exhaustion — more under control.
For a couple of days last week, Oglesby-Hendrix was unable to substitute, busy running a blood drive as the sponsor of a student health group. Luckily, this time, the district was able to find substitutes to cover both classes.
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.