Sparta Middle School

The Sparta R-III School District received a $1.4 million grant to build a stand-alone safe room on its elementary/middle school campus on Division Street.

The COVID-19 pandemic magnifies what was already a challenge for many school districts in Christian County, especially more rural school districts.

In the event that a teacher or a staff member at a school tests positive for COVID-19, that educator must be held out of work for at least 10 days. Teachers or staff members who come into close contact with a person who is sick with COVID-19 must also quarantine at home for up to 14 days.

The days of a substitute teacher filling in for one, two or three days while a teacher was out sick have been replaced by more long-term substitute teaching.

If a substitute teacher is going to be giving real classroom instruction, they have to be qualified.

“It’s not just Joe Schmo off the street coming in off the street to be a sub. There are some logistics that have to take place,” Sparta School District Superintendent Rocky Valentine said. “What’s going to be the piece that causes us issues is the lack of substitute staff.”

Prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus in Christian County in mid-March, the Sparta School District relied heavily on a handful of retired teachers who live in the area and would sometimes pick up the opportunity to make some spending money. COVID-19 changed that for several retired teachers who fall into the category of individuals who are at an elevated risk for contracting the virus.

“We have a handful of retired teachers who have said, ‘Hey, we’re just not comfortable right now,’ and I completely respect that,” Valentine said.

The Sparta School District had a trending decline in substitute teaching and staffing over the last two years, and Valentine suspects his district is not alone amongst the other school districts in Christian County.

“We’ve not had as many retirees who are local who would want to come and continue working a little bit, that’s one issue, but then also the economy has been so good here for the last three or four years, that part-time work—if that’s what someone is seeking, which is what subbing is to some degree, you can do it full-time if you choose—there are so many available jobs out there if someone chooses to work here and there,” Valentine said.

In February 2020, before any cases of COVID-19 were identified or any stay-at-home orders were issued for Christian County, the unemployment rate in Christian County was about 3 percent. The unemployment rate climbed as high as 12.3 percent in April 2020, and has since fallen off to an estimated 5.7 percent by July 2020, the latest estimate available through the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

By comparison, Christian County had an unemployment rate of 1.9 percent in September 2019, meaning that COVID-19 served to simply magnify an already existing problem for school districts in Christian County seeking to find a reliable pool of part-time workers who could work on an as-needed basis.

Dr. Della Bell-Freeman, superintendent of the Spokane School District, echoed some of Valentine’s sentiments.

“Finding subs right now is tough, and even though work limits for retirees have been waived temporarily, retirees are at a higher risk for complications with COVID so they are not readily available,” Bell-Freeman said. “We have a handful of subs that are dedicated to serving our district, and we have been keeping them busy.”

If a substitute teacher is not readily available at Spokane High School or Spokane Junior High, other teachers are asked to cover for their colleagues during what would ordinarily be a planning period. The 10-14 day window of absence that comes with COVID-19 makes for a more difficult time covering each class. It can also be tough for students.

“We are also working as a team to cover staff absences and remembering that flexibility is a priority,” Bell-Freeman said. “The prolonged absences resulting from a quarantine are tough, because our goal is to ensure consistency for students, and with a sub shortage and faculty out for a number of days, it's challenging to provide stability in the form of the same substitute over a period of days. Stability and consistency are very important to classroom management, and when you consider contact tracing, good classroom management is a priority.”

Both Bell-Freeman and Valentine point out that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education relaxed some standards for what it takes to be a substitute teacher.

A Content Substitute certificate may be granted to an individual who has a high school diploma, General Education Diploma (GED) or High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) and has successfully completed a minimum of twenty (20) clock hours of department-approved substitute teacher training that includes professionalism, honoring diversity, engaging students, foundational classroom management techniques, basic instructional strategies, supporting students with special needs, and working with at-risk youth.

They must also pass background checks.

“There is a push for subs, both regular subs and then the alternate path to becoming a sub. You’re no longer required to have 60 [college credit] hours. You have to be 21, you have to pass a background check, you have to have a 20-hour training on how to be a sub, and our district requires any sub to conduct even more training on top of that. You’re really looking at 25-27 hours,” Valentine said.

School districts also face challenges when specialized workers like food service workers, school nurses and bus drivers are out sick.

Bus drivers must possess the proper licensing, which can make it difficult for school districts to find the right people to cover for an absent driver. The drivers cover morning and afternoon student transportation routes, plus trips for students traveling to other schools for extracurricular activities.

“We have had to double up on some of our routes to get students home,” Bell-Freeman said. “When doing that, we have expected students to wear a face covering when they can't social distance, and we've reminded parents that picking students up is always an option.”

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Clever: (staffed through Penmac Education Services)



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