COVID-19

James Wagner, executive director of ARIN Intermediate Unit 28, said all of its member school districts are facing substitute teacher shortages.

“(Districts) have had to double up classrooms, put them in the gym or other things,” he said. “Just about every district in the IU has been shut down at some point or another because they don’t have enough staff in the schools.”

Wagner said it is a situation that may have changed as schools returned to in-person instruction.

“(Marion Center) has experienced many of the same issues Mr. Wagner spoke of,” Marion Center Area School District Superintendent Clint Weimer said. “It is a daily struggle to cover our buildings. The lack of substitute teachers adds additional stress upon district as we all try to navigate the pandemic.

Weimer said that pandemic amplifies his district’s struggles as teachers are required to quarantine if they are exposed to the COVID-19 virus, whether it is in the classroom or in the course of their daily lives.

“Our teachers are committed to the educational process here at MC, but despite their devotion, naturally everyone gets sick now and then,” the Marion Center superintendent said. “When a teacher has to call off because they are not feeling well or have to provide care for one of their children, it poses a challenge as it pertains to coverage of their classes.”

“The Indiana Area School District has been very blessed, fortunate and lucky not to have (to) close this year due to a lack of substitute teachers thus far,” IASD Superintendent Michael Vuckovich said. “Though we are in the midst of the worst of the pandemic, we have been able to keep our doors open due to an all-hands-on-deck mindset on the part of the administration, board, teachers and support staff.”

“We have not had to close because of lack of substitutes this year, but we have had to double classes to get through the day,” Homer-Center Superintendent Curtis Whitesel said. “Some of our yearly day-to-day subs have elected not to sub this year because of COVID. As are most schools, we are always looking for good subs to continue to make our educational day as normal as possible. There is a great need across the state for substitutes and I would gladly advocate for improvement in this area.”

“As with most districts we have struggled at times to find substitute teachers,” Purchase Line Superintendent Shawn L. Ford said. “We have had to creatively adjust schedules and use an ‘all hands on deck’ methodology. Further, when teaching staff have to quarantine due to COVID-19, we have permitted them, when healthy, to virtually teach in the classrooms that are being overseen by non-instructional staff.”

Across area counties, the need for subs preceded the pandemic.

“We have been fortunate to have served our students in-person for almost all of the 2020-2021 school year (at least at the current time),” United Superintendent Dr. Barbara Parkins said. “We have increased our substitute teacher rate to $120 per day, and this has yielded us a few additional substitutes, but we could surely use some more. Because we are in-person learning, we need those folks on a daily basis at both the (United) Elementary and Junior/Senior High schools.”

“The pandemic this year has made things all the more difficult,” Apollo-Ridge School District Superintendent Dr. Matt Curci said in an email. “While substitute teachers have been employed by the district for extended absences, online learning is not conducive to day-to-day substitutes. Asynchronous learning is used if a teacher is too ill to use live sessions, and students may use videos or online activities as planned.”

On Jan. 21, Apollo-Ridge Education Foundation, a self-styled all-volunteer group comprised of alumni, parents and concerned community members, had a link in an email to a want-ad: “Apollo-Ridge Needs Classroom Subs!

“Substitute staff members are the unsung heroes of our school system. They’re talented individuals who are always ready to step up to the plate to provide coverage wherever they’re needed most. Relied upon by school administrators, teachers, and students alike, substitutes are chameleons who seamlessly adapt to any situation they face.

ESS, based in Knoxville, Tenn., touts 20 years of specializing “in placing qualified staff in daily, long-term, and permanent K-12 school district positions including substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school support staff.”

White Township-based ARIN IU 28 also has had to shut down classes for lack of available staff. Wagner said the pandemic is only worsening a substitute shortage that has been happening for around five years.

IU 28 is advertising to hire two full-time teacher substitutes after negotiating with the unit’s teachers’ union, the ARIN Education Association. In addition, Wagner said, the unit is seeking a full-time classroom substitute for the rest of the year to cover a family medical leave.

In Indiana Area, Vuckovich also cited working with both employee organizations there.

“To date, we had to move to full-remote learning for approximately one week due to COVID infections,” Vuckovich said. “We are doing our best to make sure the overall continuity of education for our students is in place.”

He applauded district staff and families for working “incredibly hard to adhere to our safety plan.” He said teachers in IASD are working on multiple fronts, including in-person instruction, and synchronous, and asynchronous instruction.

“In the past, we were fortunate enough to have had several of our retired teachers as substitutes,” United’s Parkins said. “However, this is not the case during the continued pandemic, and that is certainly understandable. Thus, we are using other staff members, such as paraprofessionals, to sit with students in the classroom where students work on lessons assigned from their absent teachers when we do not have enough substitutes for the day.”

She said United administrators also have filled in, and that there is the handicap of not having more than 25 students in a classroom.

“We must abide by the 6-feet social distancing, when feasible,” Parkins said.

Dr. Josh Williams, Armstrong School District assistant superintendent of secondary instruction, noted that his district’s fill rates for substitutes are down. He said the shortage has been exacerbated this year due to a number of people being quarantined.

He added that some people have also been hesitant to come into Armstrong district buildings, and that administrators, cafeteria monitors and teachers in their planning periods have been pulled in to cover classes. Also, sometimes, he said, the library is closed so that the librarian may cover a course.

“We’ve had to do any combination of those things in virtually all our buildings this year,” Williams said.

“Our teachers became tech savvy during the spring of the 2019-2020 school year,” Parkins said, “and they amaze me every day with all of the new things that they have learned along with their students. Please know that nothing takes the place of a highly qualified and trained teacher, as we know that an effective teacher is the single most important factor in successful student achievement.”

“Providing adequate coverage has been a tremendous challenge that has been amplified by the number of individuals who are ill or to quarantine due to the pandemic,” Apollo-Ridge’s Curci wrote. “Many don’t realize the impact that just one or two positive cases among staff can have on a building, as the number of colleagues who may (have) been close contacts can expand the need for coverage to entire grade levels or beyond. With so few available to provide substitute coverage, remote instruction is often the only option to safely provide consistent instruction.”

Wagner said IU 28 also is always hiring additional paraprofessionals.

Dr. Matthew Pawk, Armstrong’s coordinator of special education and psychological services, said his district is not experiencing a shortage of paraprofessionals.

He said the district has been able to cover their absences with people within buildings, and the paraprofessionals haven’t missed a lot of days.

Interested people can also apply on the ARIN IU 29 website — iu28.org — for the IU’s guest teacher program, Wagner said. If enough people sign up, the organization will run the guest teacher program training again. It provides teacher training to people who have a bachelor’s degree but no teaching certification.

“We have and will continue to work with Kelly Services to try and entice people to apply for substitute teacher positions as well as use other outlets made available to us such as the IU 28 guest teacher program,” Indiana Area’s Vuckovich said.

Vuckovich also noted IASD’s ability under state law to have student teachers to sub up to 20 days “in order to provide our students with the care and educational programming they need to be successful.”

“We are planning to host some guest teacher training for those bachelor’s degree individuals who are not teacher-trained, but interested in serving as substitute teachers,” Parkins said. “We are hoping to provide training each month so that there is opportunity for those interested to receive the training.”

Two districts that reach into Indiana County are not part of ARIN IU 28.

“We are constantly doubling up classes, and in one situation, had to go remote because of the shortage,” Harmony Area Superintendent Kenneth M. Jubas said.

“I think the problem tends to be geographical in nature,” Jubas continued. “Most substitutes reside near or in the community of the few schools they work at, therefore, it’s common for three to four schools to battle with each other over one substitute teacher. We need a way for the IU’s or even (Pennsylvania Department of Education) to allow each district to provide local training to individuals with a 2-4 year degree and get them an emergency certificate.”

“We have been fortunate enough with our staffing to not have to close down our schools because of a lack of teacher substitutes,” Punxsutawney Area Superintendent Dr. Thomas Lesniewski said. “We do have a smaller group of available substitute teachers, but they have been very willing to work when needed.

“Our full time teachers have done an outstanding job of working with our building principals to cover classes when necessary,” Lesniewski continued. “We have not had to double up classrooms or put them in a gym based on current (Centers for Disease Control) social distancing requirements. Our teachers are doing an outstanding job as well as our students, in following our COVID protocols.”

The Punxsutawney Area superintendent went on to express the hope, when a vaccine becomes more widely available, to finish 2020-21 on a positive note.