Some schools desperate for substitute teachers and other staff are turning to an unusual group of candidates: parents.
At Austin Jewish Academy, Principal Chris Aguero said he is relying exclusively on parents to fill in as teachers call out sick during the latest surge in coronavirus cases and as the pool of substitutes dries up.
“It’s people reprioritizing what they want to do with their time,” Aguero said. “So if they’re not afraid to be in a building full of children, then they have to decide, is this how they want to spend their time?”
The Texas school isn’t alone.
At Hays Consolidated Independent School District, just south of Austin, parents are now considered qualified to fill in for absent teachers without the 30 college hours usually required, district spokesman Tim Savoy said in a statement. A flier posted on the district’s Facebook page says its schools are hiring “certified and eligible noncertified” substitute teachers.
In the Dallas metro area, Richardson Independent School District called on parents Wednesday to help it overcome “immediate and critical shortages” of staff by volunteering to work as cafeteria monitors, central office assistants or substitute teachers. And in Palo Alto, Calif., the district’s superintendent filmed a video begging for volunteers so that schools could stay open.
The pleas for help reflect a nationwide staffing crisis as districts grapple with teacher shortages – partly fueled by departures related to the coronavirus pandemic – and an increasing number of employees needing to stay home after being infected with or exposed to the highly contagious omicron variant. As districts struggle to find substitutes, many teachers have been skipping their planning periods to cover their colleagues’ classes.
The shortages also extend beyond teachers. In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools has asked for National Guard members to serve as bus drivers. School board members in a Vermont district helped clean buildings after the custodial staff lost about one-third of its members. A Georgia principal has been serving chicken nuggets to students and washing dishes.
Still, a majority of U.S. schools have operated mostly as planned during the omicron surge. About 4% of schools experienced a pandemic-related disruption – unplanned virtual learning, independent learning or closures – this week, according to the data-tracking company Burbio.
Texas schools have a particular incentive to keep classroom learning available to students. To maintain full state funding, the Texas Education Agency requires schools to provide an in-person option for any family that wants it.
Savoy said Hays CISD, which serves more than 20,000 students, has been scrambling to find enough substitute teachers to meet its need. The district, he said, has fewer substitutes than usual – about 300, compared with roughly 500 in a non-pandemic year – and more teachers needing to stay home – at least 250 each day of the week after this year’s winter break, compared with about 180 in most years.
As of Thursday, Savoy said three parents had signed up to be substitutes and Hays had yet to cancel a class. District employees, including central office staff and other teachers, also were serving as substitutes, he said.
At Austin Jewish Academy, seven parents have agreed to work as substitutes in the 130-student school, Aguero said. They have to take a short training and be vaccinated against the coronavirus, and they are paid the same amount as other substitute teachers.
Unlike Hays CISD, Austin Jewish Academy hasn’t changed its requirements. Even in normal times, the school does not expect substitutes to have a college education or any kind of certification.
The key, Aguero said, is simply whether someone seems well-suited to work with children and keep order in a classroom. It also helps, he said, that parents generally take the pandemic precautions that the school expects.
“You could have the most credentialed person who can’t command a classroom, and they wouldn’t be a good fit,” Aguero said.
Don Austin, superintendent of Palo Alto Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay area, said in his video that the district needed parents to help with staffing for schools to stay open.
“We can’t keep up. There’s no labor pool,” Austin told parents. “No amount of money can solve this issue. We need your help.”
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The Washington Post’s Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.