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COVID and School District Staffing

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Davenport School District, Central High School tweet

Even before the pandemic, school districts in Iowa and Illinois were having problems hiring teachers and other staff. But COVID has made it all worse, and it's hard to predict when and if the situation will improve.

For example, at United Township High School in East Moline, Superintendent Jay Morrow says there would be 5 to 10 substitute teachers on a normal day. In recent months though, there've been 10 to 15.

UT Superintendent Jay Morrow
United Township School District
UT Superintendent Jay Morrow

"Typically your substitute teaching pool is an older population, we have many retired educators that come back to sub that are familiar with the district, many of their colleagues are still teaching here so they're a fantastic substitute teaching pool. But I think over time some of those folks decided not to do it, especially when COVID hit a lot of those folks just don't want to expose themselves to potential additional illness."

Subs were in short supply before the pandemic, and there are even fewer now.

Moline Assistant Superintendent Todd DeTaeye says before COVID, on a normal day 90 per cent of teaching positions would be filled by regular staff, but for the last year or so it's dropped to 70 to 80 per cent.

"There are times when we have to combine classes - we try to avoid that whenever possible but if the classes are able to be combined, they've been combined before. We have some of our support staff cover classes - art, library, P.E. We kind of prioritize where we need to cover the gaps. Teachers sometimes have to forego their planning time and pick additional sections especially at the secondary level. And then of course our our principals and our administrators are covering as well."

Hoping to attract more possible substitute teachers, the Moline district is offering cash bonuses to those who work for the district - subs who log 20 days will receive a 300 dollar cash bonus, and more for 40, 60, and 80 days working for the district.

One solution for the Bettendorf schools, according to Human Resources Director Jill Matherly, was more training for some of their staff.

"When COVID first started we offered assistance to our para-educators to be certified to become substitutes, so we've been able to use that pool of talent. In addition to that, our staff has really stepped up - you know sometimes it's only a matter of covering a period, especially at the secondary level, so we have not had major issues."

She says a big help for her is the shortened quarantine time - reducing that to just 5 days has made her life easier, along with a high vaccination rate among district staff.

Illinois has also relaxed the licensing rules for substitute teachers. Rock Island County Regional Superintendent Tammy Muerhoff says that happened even before COVID.

"Such as an alternative licensure program for folks who've had prior experience, prior careers if you will in other content areas. They are able to enter a teacher education program and complete specific course work in a more condensed amount of time to complete their professional educator licensure."

Tammy Muerhoff, Superintendent, Rock Island County Regional Office of Education
Rock Island County Regional Office of Education, https://www.riroe.com/about-riroe/staff
Tammy Muerhoff, Superintendent, Rock Island County Regional Office of Education

Illinois also allows potential teachers credit for their prior careers to qualify for a license.

Dr. Morrow at U.T. says another helpful change has been to allow people with at least 60 college credit hours to work as substitutes.

"We have a few college students that are in their senior year for example that may be able to sub. If they have classes Monday, Wednesday, Friday, perhaps they could sub on Tuesday and Thursday. So we'll see if that brings in any additional candidates."

DeTaeye in Moline says, if nothing else, the pandemic has forced school districts to be flexible.

"For example we started this year with our long-term subs, hoping that we wouldn't need them for second semester but here we are in second semester and still need them. We're just kind of keeping an eye on the landscape and adjusting as needed."

He wonders if when the pandemic is over, or becomes less of a severe problem, and more like the flu, in his words, "will we have learned to be better?"

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois. While a graduate student in the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield (then known as Sangamon State University), he got his first taste of public radio, covering Illinois state government for WUIS. Here in the Quad Cities, Herb worked for WHBF Radio before coming to WVIK in 1987. Herb also produces the weekly public affairs feature Midwest Week – covering the news behind the news by interviewing reporters about the stories they cover.
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