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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Pandemic Side Effect: Wyoming Schools Face A Substitute Teaching Shortage

Sam Beebe via CC BY 2.0

Washakie County School District #1 in Worland is having a substitute shortage. But that's nothing new.

"It's always an issue. Most of the time we do pretty well, this year, the problems have been exacerbated primarily because we're having more staff out for longer periods of time due to quarantines," said Jack Stott, the district's business manager.

He said no role is spared.

"We're scrambling for every category of employee."

While he said no schools in Washakie #1 have had to close this year because of COVID-19 outbreaks, a lot of staff like teachers, bus drivers, and cooks are having to take time away from work because of positive COVID-19 cases or quarantines. As of December 8, fifteen school district staff members were out.

It's a problem that districts of different sizes across the state are facing.

Brendan O'Connor, assistant director of the Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board (PTSB), the organization that grants the permits that substitutes need to work in schools, said the board started hearing from districts in September about a shortage.

"Traditionally, a lot of the substitute pool in districts comes from retired teachers," he said. "Since those are a population that are potentially at risk for coronavirus, they didn't want to continue working at a substitute and face potential exposure in the schools."

O'Connor said there are two paths to getting approved to substitute teach. One is having at least 60 college credit hours-or an associates degree or higher-an application, and background check. That takes a couple of weeks to process.

The second option, which is referred to as the alternate path, doesn't require the college credit hours.

"They have at least a high school diploma, or GED," O'Connor said. "The district then sets up some training, which includes 24 hours total of training that includes classroom management, using lesson plans, student behaviors, age level communication skills, Instructional Technology and professional behaviors and dispositions."

For this route, the applicant also has to complete 30 observational hours and maybe other training depending on the district.

Jack Stott from Washakie #1 said they've been using the alternate path more and have offered to pay for some current staff to get training.

"We've put in a few little incentives to help out our para educators to qualify as substitute teachers so that when teachers are gone, we have a few more paras that can fill in for him," he said.

PTSB's O'Connor said they are seeing huge increases in people interested in being a substitute.

But they still need more.

Recently, Gov. Mark Gordon and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow put out a call for any college students who can qualify to start subbing if they have the time, especially while on break from school.

Macey Seidel has just finished up her student teaching in Sheridan in November. Now, she's substitute teaching.

"I think it would just be super fitting, to kind of give back to that school community and fill the holes where teachers need breaks, and they need to be covered," she said. "And so I thought that would. just be the perfect opportunity for me to do so. Because that way I can allow students to remain in school where as if there was a shortage of subs they may have to return to virtual or distance learning."

Seidel said that while she's looking for a full time teaching position in the district, substitute teaching is giving her the opportunity to learn more about the job she hopes to have and to feel more prepared going in, especially working at different grade levels.

"Some of the veteran teachers that I was able to talk to-everyone is overwhelmed this year, but they especially were like, 'Whoa, it's just completely new.' And I kind of was able to be like, well, literally everything is completely new to me so much more seeing learning virtually, and that kind of thing."

Sheridan County School District #2 in Sheridan isn't facing the same shortages some other districts are.

But Assistant Superintendent Scott Stults, said that around 10 percent of the substitutes on their list have opted out this year because of COVID-19 concerns.

"For the month of November, we had 1,007 absences for the month, we had a 71 percent fill rate, which isn't great. It's pretty good," he said. "A year ago, in the month of November, there was 750 absences with a 82 percent fill rate. So we saw about 250 more absences for the month of November."

One solution schools have at their disposal is that if teachers have to miss in-person teaching, they can teach virtually while kids are in class. However, it doesn't solve the problem of having someone in the room to supervise.

PTSB is also working on plans with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to come up with options for government employees who have furlough days.

Balow said it's something she's encouraging her staff to do at the Wyoming Department of Education. She said that the department's chief of staff and the deputy state auditor have started to substitute teach while on furlough.

"What a great way to get local and really high quality expertise that may not be educators but have some high quality experiences to share throughout the day," she said

Washakie #1's Stott said, no matter what, they're trying their best to keep kids in school with this added pandemic challenge.

"Our motto is all hands on deck, you know, if the superintendent or myself or the curriculum manager needs to go cover a classroom, we'll go cover a classroom," he said.

Balow said that with the holiday break schools are approaching, she's confident schools are prepared to handle it with all the things they've learned since returning in the fall.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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