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Posted on 01-03-2023

January~A perfect storm for schools, teachers: No subs, bus woes, COVID

By 5:30 a.m. on school days, Jeffory Gibeault is already up and wrestling with how to man his classrooms.

The principal of Southern Elementary School in New Castle has had to cover as many as 25 classes in one recent day because teachers were out coping with COVID-19 in some way.

Wednesday was a good day. He only had to find people to cover seven classes.

Gibeault said he’s afraid he’ll jinx himself if he says that makes him hopeful, even coming one day after a state announcement that new cases seemed to have plateaued and were maybe starting to drop a bit.

“You know, I was feeling that way around Thanksgiving,” he said. “Two weeks later, we really started to see the beginning of the surge … But, yeah, we’re starting to recover and catch our breath a little bit. I hope we keep this direction for a while but to be a realist, I think this is just the lull in the many storms that are probably to come.”

Finding someone to handle classes during the winter surge of COVID-19 has proven to be a challenge for schools up and down the state.

Teachers are having to stay out mostly because of COVID. They may have COVID themselves, have been exposed to COVID or have symptoms and need to be tested before they can return. Sometimes, their own children have COVID, have been exposed and are quarantined, or their child care provider is closed because of the spread of the virus there.

Substitutes are almost nonexistent and nobody is sure why.

Some point to a reluctance to come into schools, given that they’re known to be cauldrons of illnesses such as colds, flu and stomach bugs in the best of times, and perhaps serious illness now with the coronavirus continuing to circulate.

Schools are turning to paraprofessionals, administrators, tutors, student teachers and central office workers such as instructional coaches to lead classes.

Teachers upstate and down have been vocal about needing help and telling stories about classes that are doubled up or put in auditoriums to watch movies because there’s no one available. Some are missing lunch and planning schedules while they’re dealing with children who are coming into schools without mandated masks, and sometimes coming in late because bus systems are dealing with the same issues.

They’ve also said that schools are not being cleaned as they were because of COVID hitting custodial crews, too, causing them to feel unsafe.

Some teachers want schools to return to virtual classes. Others want schools to institute asynchronous days when kids would stay at home and study there to give teachers a chance to catch their breath. Others have even mentioned closing schools for a week or two.

But the state and school systems are reluctant to do any of that, partly because parents have made it clear they want kids in class and partly because school systems think children learn better in the classroom.

Even so, some schools have been forced to go virtual. Gibeault had to make special needs classes virtual for a few days because he didn’t have the workers to keep the students in class.

His school district, Colonial, made William Penn High School virtual for a week because of the shortage of teachers and substitutes. 

“That’s a last-resort situation and the principals and staff are working really hard to try to figure out how do we put this puzzle together every day because every day it’s a little bit different dynamic,” said Pete Leida, deputy superintendent of the Colonial School District.

A.I. du Pont High School last week gave students the options to stay home after so many teachers and students were out because of COVID. 

Senior Eileena Mathews, the student member of the Red Clay School Board, told the board Wednesday night that neither she nor her fellow students wanted to go back to virtual classes like last year.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of a general shortage of workers in school, substitutes and bus drivers. More teachers and bus drivers are retiring early than expected. Fewer people are lining up to take their places.

Leida said the system sometimes starts the year with one class that doesn’t have a teacher, but it’s always filled within a couple of weeks by a certified teacher.

The system started this school year with several empty slots. When it does fill one, it’s often with a teacher from another district, and teachers are leaving Colonial to go to other districts too, he said.

Virtual classes can be an option, he said, when a teacher isn’t ill but has to stay home because they’re in quarantine after an exposure.

The best thing to happen, he said, is the CDC cutting in half the number of quarantine days when an illness doesn’t seem to be developing.

“I do feel like the last two weeks felt extraordinarily stressful on schools because we have such a high number of staff that are quarantined because of their children or their children being quarantined,” Leida said.

The Delaware State Education Association on Monday issued a statement pointing out that educators came back to school in January in an environment different from when they left.

DSEA president Stephanie Ingram asked districts to evaluate their operational capacity and ability.

“What I am doing, on behalf of my members, is asking for changes to be made to combat the operational challenges being faced in order to keep our students, staff, and entire school communities safe,” she said in the statement. “For some districts, that may mean returning to virtual learning if necessary – and some have done that already. But, for many districts, there are changes that can be made to provide a quality and safe in-person learning environment for all.”

She said schools were using paraprofessionals to cover classrooms, monitor students and provide instruction, as well as counselors, librarians and social workers.

“In some instances, multiple classes of students are being placed in cafeterias or auditoriums at the same time with a singular staff member rather than having class because of coverage issues,” her statement said. “Students are arriving late to school because the lack of transportation workers is causing bus drivers to make multiple, back-to-back runs each day. In some cases, they are also driving special needs buses without the assistance of bus aides.”

DSEA members want to be in class with their students, she said.

“But they need more support from their districts to make this in-person learning environment safe and effective.”

That included asking for all COVID cleaning precautions to be resumed, KN95 masks distributed to all staff members for safety precautions, adequate support to meet increased needs of educators/paras, nurses, transportation and custodians, and for each district to create a plan to address operational challenges and to communicate in an effective and transparent manner with the entire school community they serve.”

Asked about Ingram’s statement Tuesday during a COVID-19 press briefing, Gov. John Carney said the state was paying a lot of attention to the issue.

“It’s a difficult one because each district and each school in the district is situated a little bit differently,” Carney said. “The one consistent thing is that every district is different. And so it makes it a little bit harder for us.”

He pointed out that the state had asked retired teachers to consider returning to classrooms as substitutes and is willing to waive certain provisions that could cause a financial deterrent for retirees to consider returning.

Mostly, he said, the state is focusing on bringing the surge down so regular staff can return. That includes distributing KN95 masks for teachers, staff and students in sixth grade and higher. The state hasn’t been able to find masks to fit younger children.

Carney said there have been talks about putting National Guard members into classrooms to help, but that wasn’t feasible.

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Betsy Price

Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.  

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