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.
“We’re just going to have to keep our nose to the grindstone through this month as we peak and get healthier on the other side,” he said.
Tika Harstock, an educational diagnostician at Stubbs Early Education Center in Wilmington, said one reason teachers are frustrated is the “lack of respect for the profession, their expertise and what they really provide for for children versus just being a babysitting service.”
She’s also the president of the board of the Parent Information Center.
Teachers frequently are struggling with students who have forgotten how to handle being in classrooms after so much time on virtual learning.
“We just kind of jumped back into it with the expectation that they should remember all the structures and rules and expectations and approaches to learning strategies that they had before,” Harstock said. “And so clearly that didn’t happen.”
With all that happening, teachers are still expected to have their classes meet certain standards at specific time points.
“There’s been no adjustment to the pacing guide by the Department of Education,” she said. “So educators are expected to be teaching the same thing at the same rate prior to the pandemic.”
Southern Elementary, where Gibeault has been principal for six years, has 750 kids, 60 teachers, 55 paraprofessionals and about five other staff members such as occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists. The school has a larger staff than others because it handles an unusually high number of special needs students, he pointed out.
He starts his hunt for substitutes are 5:30 a.m. when he checks a district data service center email that tells him the teachers who have registered to be out. He also starts checking new requests for time off.
“You start playing the chessboard as soon as they come in,” he said. “I can move this person here. Or this is a teacher in a two-teacher classroom. The remaining teacher can cover the room. You just start going through all of your cover steps. And as soon as you think you got a plan, somebody else calls out.”
By 6:30 a.m., he’s checking with Kelly Education Staffing to see if any substitutes will come in, Gibeault said.
Before the pandemic, a teacher would alert Kelly that she or he needed to be away from the classroom. Kelly would send out an alert to those on its substitute list saying what the vacancies were. They could easily fill five or ten sub jobs immediately, Gibeault said.
Now, he said, he feels lucky to get one substitute from Kelly. It’s a miracle to get two, he said. The service no longer has the bodies seeking sub-jobs.
Southern was lucky that it has a memorandum of understanding in place with the paraprofessional union that allows the school to ask them to take a classroom for additional pay, Gibeault said. They’ve had as many as 10 teaching classes at one time.
“We just have to be careful that when we’re utilizing that new procedure that we’re not pulling support away from students that need it because they’re medically fragile or you at a high-risk for some sort of physical negative outcome,” he said.
“But there are certainly times of the year where we have hit a wall and maxed out all of our options.”
The Colonial District also works with a company that provides classroom substitutes as well as tutors. Gibeault said Southern has asked tutors to come in and take classes.
“A lot of times they’re they’re being utilized in places to support where paraprofessionals would have been supporting or backfilling,” he said.
Those tutors may not have experience in education or a background in classrooms, “but they’ve been a godsend.”
Southern can also draw on University of Delaware education majors in the building to help with coverage, he said.
Schools cannot ask parents to volunteer, because anyone running the classroom has to pass a criminal background check first.
The day’s substitution plan “gets stamped” at about 8:15 a.m., he said, and there’s often still a few more moves. On Wednesday at 11 a.m., he was talking to a school secretary about assigning one of the UD students to a classroom to help.
With all of that, Gibeault said he’s been careful to make sure teachers are keeping their planning and lunch times.
But he admits cleaning is not at the level it used to be. The custodians generally would empty trash, sweep and use a disinfectant fogger on each classroom every day. That cleaning would include things like trying to remove marks from desks and other general sprucing up.
Now, he says, the custodians focus on clearing the trash and getting each room fogged with disinfectant. A desk might still have marks on it, but those marks will have been fogged, he said.
If there was one thing he wanted parents to know, he said, it’s that the school really appreciates their families’ flexibility and the support they give their kids. Sometimes, he said, it’s a moment’s notice when they have to come pick up their child because another one has tested positive at school and they’ve been in close contact.
He knows they are frustrated and dealing with COVID fatigue.
“I want parents to know that we are going to great lengths to keep our schools open and continue with face-to-face instruction,” he said. “But during those times, we may need to close and it’s because we’re doing it with student safety in mind.”
Leida predicts there will be other fallout from schools having to deal with COVID-19.
He thinks there will be fewer students going into education at college after having to deal with a pandemic in high school.
“They see what’s going on,” he said. “So I think we need to really think deeply and innovatively around how we are going to somehow stimulate the flood of people that are interested in the profession. This is a talent-based industry.”
Asked what role resiliency plays in the school situation, Leida said he has put a lot of thought into that.
Most people expect to deal with setbacks or frustrations, but he has a story to illustrate what teachers may have to deal with.
One of the Colonial schools had a boiler out a few days ago. When teachers and students arrived it was 60 degrees in the school.
“You can muddle through the morning at 60 degrees,” he said. “You may be able to do it for a whole day. But can you do it for a week? Can you do it for a month? I don’t know. It just starts to drain you,” Leida said.
“I think people have actually been very resilient. But now we’re just about two years in and I think every time we begin to see this light of hope, the next wave crashes down.”
And, he said, “Every surge hurts education in a really difficult way.”
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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