BCS district faces shortage of substitute teachers due to COVID-19

Parents, community members step up in emergency plan

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As the number of COVID-19 cases in Washington County continue to rise, Blair Community Schools Supt. Randy Gilson is keeping an eye on the data and what it means for keeping students in the classroom.

“As long as we're wearing masks, it's working. That's not the issue,” he said. “The issue for us right now is having enough teachers.”

As of Monday, BCS had 115 students and two staff members in quarantine due to being close contacts of someone who tested positive for COVID-19. There were seven students and two staff members in quarantine for testing positive for the illness.

During the 2020-21 school year, the district has had 69 students and staff members test positive for COVID-19. However, of those 69, only 5 were believed to be school-based spread. Meaning the district is only responsible for 0.001% of all cases in the Three Rivers Public Health Department jurisdiction.

“We still feel like it's really safe,” Gilson said.

But as teachers test positive or are forced to quarantine due to a close contact exposure, BCS has faced a similar issue beleaguering many districts for the continuation of full in-person learning: the ability to find enough substitute teachers.

On average, the district has needed 18.5 substitutes per day. As the number has increased, Gilson said, the fill rate has decreased.

“Over 13, our fill rate starts dropping pretty sharp,” he said.

As part of its emergency substitute plan, the district monitors staff absences. In a pinch, Gilson, administrators and counselors have served as substitutes, which extended its substitute teacher pool.

Teachers have also given up their plan times to cover for unfilled staff absences.

But to further increase the pool of substitutes, the district reached out to parents and community members.

Gilson said 45 parents and community members have expressed interest in becoming a local emergency substitute in the past two weeks. Twenty-seven have completed their registration and 19 are now substitute teaching in the schools.

In August, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) loosened the restrictions to become an emergency substitute teacher.

To qualify, individuals must have earned 60 college credits, which amounts to completing about 20 college classes. A degree is not required. The district will screen applicants and work through the process with the NDE.

To maintain the emergency substitute certificate for three years, individuals would have to take a human relations class. However, that does not need to be done immediately.

“We've had an incredible pool of parents and community members who in the last couple of weeks have signed up,” Gilson said. “In our emergency plan, I was hopeful we would get (some), but surprised with the number of people we got.”

This past week, the district had a 98% substitute fill rate.

“We thank our regular substitute teachers who have been reliable and consistent throughout the pandemic,” Gilson said.

Even with the increases in staff absences, the quality of in-person learning remains high and consistent.

“Even when we have subs in, the sub is just in the classroom while the teacher is teaching remotely,” Gilson said. “That's why we're so proud of our teachers. It's amazing.”

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