Hamilton County schools ask parents to pitch in as substitutes as COVID takes its toll

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Hamilton Southeastern Superintendent Yvonne Stokes has a request.

“I ask that if you have any time in your daily schedule that you will consider subbing,” she said in a Friday video update to the HSE community. “…You can make your own schedule, and even subbing one-day-a-week will help make a difference.”

Her request to families wasn’t a new one. Superintendents in neighboring districts made similar pleas in messages to families, with some specifically asking parents, as well as community members to consider substituting.

Districts needing substitute teachers isn’t new, especially as the pandemic continues. But climbing COVID-19 cases, especially among teachers and staff, shows how contagious the omicron variant has been and has made the need more critical.

COVID-19 cases reported by schools to the state are record breaking. Monday was the first time that the weekly update had more than 1,000 new cases each in teachers (1,137) and staff (1,471). Plus, schools reported nearly 15,000 cases among students – more than double the record from the previous week.

Staffing shortages are a major factor – in some cases the top factor – in keeping schools in person and it’s a widespread issue, one that has already caused several schools in Marion County and elsewhere in central Indiana to go virtual.

Here’s a look at the impact so far on Hamilton County’s four biggest districts.

An all hands on deck approach

Districts agreed the need for substitutes has become worse than previously in the pandemic or before coronavirus arrived. And it's not just teachers, substitutes are needed for other staff as well.

At Noblesville Schools, the district has anywhere from 50% to 70% of the substitutes needed on a given day, per spokesperson Marnie Cooke.

At Carmel Clay Schools, the district needs from 70 to 100 substitutes daily to cover teachers and instructional assistants. That's "almost doubled from what we averaged before the pandemic,” said district spokesperson Emily Bauer.

And at HSE, the district needed an average of 110 substitutes for all roles with a fill rate of 67% in early December. Since returning from winter break, that need is an average of 144 substitutes per day with a fill rate of 45%, said Emily Pace Abbotts, district spokesperson.

At Westfield Washington Schools, the need for substitutes is up about 30% from this time last year.

That, in part, is due to classes being 100% in-person instead of the hybrid schedule last year that required fewer in-person staffers, said Josh Andrews, spokesperson for Westfield schools. Plus, he said while the substitute pool is about 300 people, not all of them work daily.

To make up the difference between openings and substitutes available, it’s all hands on deck, districts said.

Teachers are giving up their preparation time to cover other classes or combining two classes into one in some cases. Staffers from instructional assistants and media specialists to principals and central office administrators are teaching classes too.

Districts have asked for more people to apply to be substitutes from retired teachers to college students to parents to other school employees such as bus drivers.

It's a matter of educating students, but also of safety, districts said, adding that's why staffing is among the biggest concerns.

“Working to cover sub needs and keep up with all the other responsibilities of safely running a school causes a high level of stress every single day for our staff,” Cooke said.

Watching the daily absence numbers

Leaders have a close eye on the numbers.

At the HSE school board meeting last week, Stokes said that the district is looking everyday at staff and student absences to determine if schools will go virtual. That decision, she said would be on a building-by-building basis.

“On a two-day rolling cycle, we’re making a decision about particular schools,” she said.

Kids arrive for the first day of the 2021/22 school year Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021 at HSE Intermediate & Junior High School.
Kids arrive for the first day of the 2021/22 school year Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021 at HSE Intermediate & Junior High School.

And it’s not just teachers, districts are also looking at other staff absences such bus drivers, nurses and food service staff, Cooke added.

Staffing is a big part of the conversation about in-person learning, but there are multiple other factors too that could change things, such as transportation needs or changes with the pandemic, said Andrews.

How to be a substitute teacher

To be a substitute, teaching experience isn’t needed.

Districts stress that substitutes can decide how often they want to work and what subjects or levels they want to teach as well and start by directing people to resources on their websites.

Substitutes need a permit, and per the Indiana Department of Education, those have three requirements: Have a high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate, be at least 18 years old and meet the requirements set forth by the district. Those can be having college credits, attending a training program and more.

State law requires an expanded background check as well.

The application process can take several days to several weeks.

Find out more by visiting a district’s website:

Carmel: www.ccs.k12.in.us/services/human-resources/substitute-opportunities

HSE: www.hseschools.org/departments/human-resources/substitute-teachers

Noblesville: www.noblesvilleschools.org/Page/839

Westfield: www.wws.k12.in.us/page/1012

Call IndyStar education reporter MJ Slaby at 317-447-1586 or email her at mslaby@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mjslaby.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Carmel, HSE, Westfield and Noblesville schools: Substitutes needed

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