While fears over COVID-19 and outbreaks of the virus might be driving some school divisions to move from in-person instruction to virtual, such is not the case in Pulaski County.
According to school officials, the problem here is staffing issues.
“We’ve had a number of conversations, email and text exchanges and input from the community, and there really is a push to try and get back to 100 percent (in-person) instruction as quickly and safely as possible,” School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers told the Pulaski County School Board Tuesday evening.
“Our issue, and I can’t stress this enough – I probably didn’t do a good job of communicating in the beginning – when we went back from 100 percent attendance to 50 percent it was not because we were having issues over COVID outbreaks. It was because we couldn’t sufficiently staff our schools with the substitutes we had,” he explained.
As an example, Siers said at Pulaski County Middle School there was one day when eight teachers were going to be out. “We had one substitute that could come in.
“We are having so many teachers having to give up their planning period – not occasionally but almost on a daily basis – to help cover for the teachers who were out for quarantine, medical appointment or … there are a number of reasons. The stepback was never about concerns for the spread of COVID in schools, it was just our ability to staff the schools,” Siers stated.
He added the stepback was mainly just precautionary because of the holidays and the expected increase in the number of COVID cases.
“Not because we were fearful things weren’t getting done correctly in our schools. In fact, we believe that schools are the safest place for kids to be,” Siers said.
“It seems like we’re having more reports of students who are all virtual testing positive than students who are coming to school testing positive.
“We apply mitigation strategies, we clean our schools, we have students wash their hands. Our teachers are doing an excellent job making sure students follow those strategies.
“If we could work out the staffing piece of it there’s really no reason why we couldn’t be back at 100 percent,” Siers said.
He added that New River Health District Director Dr. Noelle Bissell fully supports the school system’s efforts to try and get back to 100 percent in-person instruction.
“She sees the mental health aspect of students not being in school, the increasing rates of depression and teen suicide across the country and its highly concerning too. These are things we have to take into consideration,” Siers said.
“So, if we can get the staffing issues taken care of, we stand a good chance of getting everyone back to 100 percent and hopefully be able to stay there. But we can’t do that if we can’t somehow get more people on the substitute list,” he said.
Siers presented a plan including a list of things the school system can do to hopefully increase the number of substitutes available to step into classes when teachers must be out.
“The first thing is to plead and beg for people to apply to be subs,” Siers said only partly joking. “If folks can do one day a week. If you work another job and you’re off say on Tuesday and are willing to come in and sub on Tuesday, we’ll put you through the training and we can use you on Tuesdays,” he said.
Besides trying to increase the number of substitutes available to schools, officials also want to try and get better control of absences within the teacher ranks. Such as asking personal leave requests be made 15 days in advance and spreading requests out rather than so many scheduling leave requests on Fridays and Mondays. They want to encourage teachers to schedule appointments later in the afternoon so as to not use a whole day of sick leave.
Siers said he is looking to create a standby list of available substitutes including administrators, counselors, media specialists – “pretty much anyone with a teaching license or professional license in the school division.”
Most of the issues with substitutes, Siers said, occurs at the secondary level.
“We’re also looking at support personnel to substitute. They could be a paraprofessional or be a bookkeeper,’ he said.
“I’ve thought about this a lot. I’ve got people who are emailing me that we are in a pandemic and we can’t go back to school at all, and I’ve got people who are emailing me and saying that we’ve got to get kids back at 100 percent,” said Dr. Paige Cash (Robinson District).
“We’re kind of at a point where we need to say, ‘we’re going to either try to go back or we’re just going to throw in the towel for this year.’ And I don’t think we can do that.
“I think the kids need to be in school. I think this is extraordinary and we’ve got to do this (substitute effort) in order to keep the school staff. I would like to request the administrators and counselors be at the very bottom of the standby list if at all possible, however,” she said.
“I had one person contact me and said they were concerned we would be pulling in every stranger from the street to substitute. We won’t do that. They’ll get their background checks. I feel confident we’ll be okay there.
I think we need to do this, or we throw in the towel,” Cash said.
“I think if we can get this plan off the ground and working, I think we could probably be at 100 percent in-person the whole second semester for four days a week,” Siers said.
He added, too, that the approach going forward probably needs to be changing instructional schedules on a school-by-school basis.
“Looking back, we probably should have stayed at 100 percent when we first encountered the substitute problem because elementary wasn’t the issue. The middle and high school, that’s where we were having the sub problem and we didn’t really break it down by school. In the future might have to put one school on virtual, but keep everyone else open,” he said.
Bill Benson (Cloyd District) added he’d like to take counselors off any standby list and, “I’m not so sure I wouldn’t want to take administrators at elementary school off list as well.”
“We need counselors in elementary schools, and I’d hate to see administrators out of the elementary schools. I know they have assistants, but maybe let the assistants be on the list and keep principals off the list,” he said.
Siers said it is becoming impossible to cover all the people who are quarantined.
“The number of people in quarantine has grown greatly each day. Right now, we’re making it work even without having a sub plan. But we’re getting close to the breaking point.”
“We’re not really experiencing outbreaks in our schools. The outbreaks are in the community where people aren’t following mitigation strategies. The schools are probably the safest public places that anyone can be in right now because of the enforcement of mitigation strategies,” he said.
“We’ve had no student-to-student infection or transmission in the schools,” stated Beckie Cox (Massie District).
“That’s correct,” Siers responded. “We’ve had no transmission in the schools that we’ve been made aware of. We’ve had people who have brought it (COVID) into the schools, but in all instances, they were exposed outside the school building.”
“So, all the issues are with the adults who work for the schools, not in schools because we’re keeping them (students) safe. The schools are cleaned and cleaned constantly and they’re just doing a very good job with that,” Cox said, adding problems occur when people are going out and not taking the precautions that they need to take and then carrying it back into the schools.
“We’re seeing a lot of family exposure,” said Jana Beckner, Human Resources Director for the school system.
“I think the uptick in cases we’re seeing now is the result of the Thanksgiving holiday. A lot of family members that became symptomatic during the Thanksgiving holiday and now family members are coming down with it,” Beckner said.
“I’m just going to say this publicly for everyone to hear me. You are responsible for each other. And we need to take precautions. If that means staying at home or staying away from other people, that’s exactly what we need to do. We cannot continue to spread this and kill each other. Whoever is hearing me, virtually or otherwise, you need to be responsible,” demanded Cox.
Responding to a question from School Board Chairman Tim Hurst, Beckner said the school system – as of Tuesday – had 33 employees in quarantine with 12 of them being teachers and 21 being ancillary staff.
“I appreciate what we’re trying to do to get kids back in school safely,” said Hurst. “It’s obvious that’s where they need to be. When we look at the results of virtual learning vs. face to face there’s just no comparison.
“Some people think we close schools just to close schools because there might be a little more of an outbreak in the area and that’s not necessarily the case.
“I hope folks understand the challenges and the time that went into all this and how we’re doing absolutely everything we can as a school system to keep kids in school. Pulaski County’s kids have probably been in school more than any of our surrounding neighbors,” Hurst said.
“Pulaski County has had more face-to-face instruction for all students than any other county in the New River Valley Health District,” Siers said. “We were 100 percent for elementary for seven weeks and the secondary for five weeks.”
“Let’s do a little marketing,” Cash said. “If you need extra money to pay off your Christmas bills and you’re a decent human being, this (being a substitute teacher) is a great opportunity for you.”
Beckner noted that currently substitutes are paid between $75 to $105 per day depending on whether they are a licensed teacher or degreed.
Siers’ substitute plan calls for raising those pay rates by $15 per day.
Siers planned to fine-tune the plan and bring it back to the board for their consideration in January. However, the board opted to move immediately with the plan and decided to approve it Tuesday. It passed on a 5-0 vote.
By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot