Jan. 14—STONINGTON — With the school system struggling to staff classrooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Board of Education on Thursday instructed Superintendent of Schools Van Riley to develop a plan to attract more substitute teachers and paraprofessionals.
The school system, like many others, has been scrambling on a daily basis to fill vacancies as staff members quarantine because of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This has resulted in other staff members, such a administrators, counselors and reading specialists, having to cover classrooms but Riley said the district has been able to keep the schools open.
On Thursday night, Riley told the board that the school system has been able to fill about half of the teaching vacancies each day but just 10% of the paraprofessional vacancies.
Riley said the school system recently increased the pay for substitutes from $95 to $125 a day and the 2022-23 budget calls for raises for paraprofessionals to bring them in line with what other districts pay.
Riley said the increased pay has not resulted in more people applying to substitute teach. He said monetary incentives such as bonuses have not seemed to work in other school districts, either, or in other businesses. He said the company that provides the school bus transportation has offered a $5,000 signing bonus for new drivers but has received no applications.
"So that tells you it's not the money. People are either interested in working or not," Riley said, adding incentives upset current employees who want to know why they are not getting the additional money.
He said the solution is relaxing the qualifications for hiring substitutes and paraprofessionals, and he is working with state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, and state Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, to do that.
But school board member Dan Kelley pressed Riley to come up with a plan to offer incentives such as increased pay or bonuses. He suggested increasing substitute pay to $150 a day.
"We can't just say everyone is having the same problem and not do anything about it," he said. "We haven't done enough. We need to outdo the other districts to fill these positions."
Riley said increasing the pay by another $25 a day would cost the district as much as $30,000 for the rest of the year, money that is not in the budget.
Another suggestion by board members was to possibly hire more full-time substitutes, who earn $226 a day, providing stability for both the substitute teachers and school system.
Board Chairman Farouk Rajab told Riley the town needs to tell the story of why people should substitute in Stonington. "The cost of the kids of not having them (teachers) is the kids falling behind with education," he said. "The money should be second to the kids' education, in my opinion."
But board member Craig Esposito pointed out that all school districts are having the same problems and incentives have not worked.
"But it doesn't hurt to try," Kelley said.
Riley cautioned the board that financial incentives could cause morale problems with existing staff and contractual issues.
"We'll come up with something," he told the board.
Board members asked Riley to present the plan to them at their Jan. 27 meeting.