CHEYENNE – Laramie County’s schools have never had an abundance of substitute teachers, but the COVID-19 pandemic is both exacerbating the demand for substitutes and limiting the supply.
It’s all happening amid a pandemic that shows no signs of slowing.
Last week, Wyoming reported its highest number of new active COVID-19 cases in a single day since the pandemic started in March. In the last 10 days alone, Laramie County School District 1 reported a total of 78 new positive cases, 27 of which were among staff.
In addition to relying on strict safety protocols – like mask wearing and social distancing – to contain the spread of the virus, finding enough substitutes to fill in for teachers who are ordered to quarantine for up to 14 days at a time will also be one of the keys to keeping schools open for in-person learning.
So far, only one school – Fairview Elementary – among Laramie County’s two school districts has had to temporarily shut down in-person learning due to a lack of available substitutes.
But officials are concerned that could happen again.
“If we can keep classrooms staffed, we can stay open. That will be a challenge,” said Todd Sweeter, principal of Pine Bluffs Junior-Senior High School. Sweeter said he’s even had to fill in to teach some classes – along with other teachers and paraprofessionals – when the district couldn’t get a formal substitute.
“You’ve got the pandemic stuff, and then you’ve got real world stuff. People are still having babies, people still get sick with other illnesses,” Sweeter said. “It’s also been hard on the kids, because they lose the consistency of teaching.”
In Laramie County School District 2, where Sweeter works, 27 of the roughly 225 total staff members have had to quarantine since schools reopened for in-person learning in August.
In Laramie County School District 1, which currently employs about 1,344 educators, 92 certified staff members who require a substitute to cover their classes have had to quarantine.
“I think day to day,” said Jennie Finch, substitute specialist for LCSD1. “Last year, it was much easier for me to plan. … For the most part, unless it was a Monday or Friday, I would always be able to get those classes covered.”
She explained that during a typical year, teachers would commonly be out for conferences, coaching or long weekends. This allowed her to plan to cover their absences days, weeks and even months in advance. Planned absences still happen, but COVID-19 has rendered this school year anything but typical.
If there’s a COVID-19 outbreak at a particular school, and a teacher is identified by the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department as someone who needs to quarantine, they have to pack up their belongings and leave the building immediately – sometimes for two weeks.
“Unfortunately, for the long duration teachers have to be out during quarantine, we’ve got 12 to 14 days we need to cover,” said Finch, who noted that just like LCSD2, the district has had to piece together coverage through a mix of substitutes, other teachers, paraprofessionals and even student-teachers.
“I think the subs are willing to step up to the plate, but we don’t have enough to keep up with the demand,” Finch said.
While some quarantining teachers might still be well enough to communicate with their class online, a qualified adult is still required to physically manage the classroom.
And when teachers are out for 10 or more days in a row, Finch said she simply “doesn’t have enough people to cover that.”
Cynthia Nissen, a retired teacher and substitute for LCSD1, said she wasn’t too concerned about catching the virus and was happy to come back into the classroom this year, but she’s not always willing to take the longer assignments.
“I could teach every day if I wanted to,” said Nissen, who is working her first two-week assignment of the year at Baggs Elementary, which originally started as a shorter assignment. Although she’s enjoyed having a longer period of time to connect with students, she doesn’t envision regularly taking the long-term jobs.
“I retired for a reason,” she said. “I teach when I can, but I do prefer to stay home.”
At the start of the school year, the district had planned to assign substitute teachers to specific triads to limit their exposure to individual school communities. However, Finch said the demand has been so high that she’s largely abandoned that plan and assigns teachers wherever they’re needed.
On Thursday afternoon, for instance, Finch said she still needed to fill 23 out of 150 teacher vacancies for Friday’s classes.
“There used to be days last year that I wouldn’t work even though I wanted to,” said Michelle Morris, who has worked as substitute teacher in the district for about six years, and is currently teaching a two-week assignment. “This year, I get calls every day asking me to cover assignments, but unfortunately I’m usually already working. There’s hardly any downtime.”
Not only has the demand for substitutes increased this year, COVID-19 has also depleted the available pool of substitutes. Last year at this time, Finch said she had 330 active substitutes.
This year, it’s down to 220.
Some of those substitutes have taken long-term assignments to fill in for other teachers who left for new positions at the Cheyenne Virtual School until the district can hire full-time replacements. Additionally, Finch said at least two dozen of the substitutes in this year’s pool – many of whom are older, retired teachers – have refused to take on any assignments this year.
In an effort to fill some of those gaps, the district is also offering temporary alternative certification options for people who are interested in substitute teaching – which pays a minimum of $117 a day and $260.51 a day for a long-term assignment – but don’t have the required number of college credit hours.
But Finch said so far hardly anyone has applied, which she characterized as “a sign of the times.”
Tracey Kinney, assistant superintendent of instruction for LCSD1, said the shortage, which she described as “by far the most dramatic” she’s ever seen here, is also having a sizable effect on student instruction.
“The best outcomes for our kids happen when the instructional day is designed by a full-time teacher. If the teacher cannot be there, the second-best scenario is to have very well-prepared and supported substitute teachers,” Kinney said.
But without either of those options, which has commonly been the case this year, other teachers are forced to fill in where they can – if they’re not quarantining themselves – which takes away from their ability to prepare for their own classes.
“We can’t send our kids to school without adult supervision, let alone deliver education,” she said. “We want to keep our schools open, but are finding that to be a huge quandary when we don’t have enough professional support.”