PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Amid the flurry of deep-cleaning, acquiring masks, re-making bus schedules and navigating socially distant lunchtime and recess, school administrators in Rhode Island are grappling with another issue: how to handle teacher absences in the world of “stable groups.”
The typical solution — call in a substitute teacher — carries a host of new issues in the pandemic. First, there are not enough; as Target 12 reported in February, Rhode Island has a widespread substitute shortage, one that was not magically solved over the spring and summer.
But the patchwork of solutions previously utilized — splitting up students into other classes or having teachers and staff cover for absent colleagues — presents a new problem to administrators seeking to maintain stable groups of students and adults in order to contain any outbreaks of COVID-19.
“We do need enough subs so that we can target subs to certain schools,” said Judy Paolucci, the superintendent of Smithfield Public Schools.
Multiple superintendents told Target 12 they are aiming to assign substitutes to specific schools this year, where they will go into multiple classrooms but not multiple buildings. (The building-based sub method has been used with success in Central Falls for years.)
But at the same time, many of those administrators acknowledged they have around the same number of substitutes on their roster as last school year — a number that was not enough to fill all their absences at the time.
That includes Providence, where spokesperson Laura Hart says the total number of available subs remains about the same as last school year. At that time, before schools shut down for the pandemic, Providence was only able to fill an average of 50% of teacher absences with subs.
Providence has one thing going for it in this realm: there are about 30 teacher positions still vacant, according to Superintendent Harrison Peters, compared to more than 100 at the beginning of last school year, freeing up some substitutes from needing to fill those long-term roles.
Yet on the other hand, the state’s largest school district is already reporting an uptick in daily teacher absences for the first week of school this year. There were 122 teachers absent on Monday, according to Hart, compared to 108 on the first day of school last year. Tuesday saw 134 teacher absences. (There are nearly 2,000 teachers in Providence.)
“There is definitely a shortage of people willing to sub,” said Michael Crudale, chief human resources officer for Cranston Public Schools. He said the district is trying to hire more subs after losing about 20% to 25% of its roster — many of them retired teachers, the age group at higher risk for the virus.
“We are doing our best to assign subs to specific building to assist with coverage,” Crudale said. “We are still in the process to address what happens if we run out of bodies to cover. That is tough to answer at this time.” Cranston was able to fill about 55% of absences with subs before the pandemic.
East Providence Superintendent Kathryn Crowley is also planning to place two building-based subs in every school, but said the district has not yet succeeded in filling the jobs.
“We are having difficulty,” Crowley said in an email. “This will be a problem moving forward.”
The R.I. Department of Education is also seeking to find more substitutes, this week awarding a contract to the Highlander Institute to recruit and train up to 200 subs, according to spokesperson Pete Janhunen.
Janhunen said the contract is still being finalized, but once it is complete Highlander will start accepting applications and will train substitutes who can then be deployed by RIDE to districts who need them.
In Smithfield, Paolucci said the school district raised the substitute pay rate from $85 a day to $100 in order to be more competitive. But she said it’s still been hard to recruit.
“People don’t want to go inside of a school, and people are being paid more in unemployment than certainly we even pay for a substitute,” she said. And without the funds to make subs full-time employees, she said she can’t stop them from teaching in multiple districts, another potential problem for viral spread.
“In order to have someone be a full-time employee we have to pay them first step on the teacher’s scale,” Paolucci said. “With benefits that is about three times more expensive.” She said the school budget is also still unclear because the General Assembly has not passed its own budget, which dictates state aid to schools.
Many districts acknowledged they will be sending staff to cover classrooms when no sub is available, potentially exposing them to far more students than the 30 in their cohort.
“Which would now violate the protocols of self-contained pods,” said Bob Walsh, the executive director of National Education Association Rhode Island, one of the state’s teachers unions.
Walsh said he expects there to be more teacher absences this year because of the edict that everyone stay home if they have the slightest symptoms, such as a mild cold or allergy sniffles. Plus, there could be two-week mandatory quarantines for teachers who are a close contact of someone who has tested positive for the virus.
Paolucci had a more optimistic view of the matter, pointing out that face masks and social distancing may keep common colds at bay, helping hold down the number of absences.
In Providence, splitting kids into different classrooms when they don’t have a sub will no longer happen, according to Hart.
But the practice is not outright banned statewide. Janhunen, the Department of Education spokesperson, said it’s up to the school districts to implement their own procedures, with RIDE there for help and guidance.
“We are not approaching this as an enforcement exercise,” he said in an email.
RIDE’s guidance on class coverage says: “As much as possible, the movement of teachers around the building should be limited. A schedule for substitutes that provides as little movement as possible should be established. The fewer groups of students that staff interact with in-person, the better.”
The guidance says if staff must enter multiple classrooms, they should remain six feet from their students “as feasible,” and wear a face covering. But teachers have pointed out that masks will be removed when students are eating (lunch and snacks are happening in the classroom, not the cafeteria), and staying far away from young students can be difficult when they need help or are having a conflict with another student.
Walsh fears those caveats in the guidance — “as feasible” and “as much as possible” — will be used as excuses not to follow the rules.
“There can be no exceptions,” Walsh said. “I think the first time someone is asked to do something that violates the health and safety protocols that have been laid out, we’re going to end up either in the official grievance process or before a judge, saying ‘shut it down.'”