"Critical staff shortages” were among the reasons Madison Metropolitan School District officials cited for delaying a return to in-person instruction by at least a week.
It’s a familiar story to those in other districts around the country that have announced similar delays: too many teachers have COVID or a family member with COVID and there aren’t enough substitutes. MMSD was the first to announce a delay in Wisconsin, but three other large districts joined it over the weekend: Milwaukee (announced Sunday), Racine Unified (announced Saturday), Greendale (announced Sunday) and Beloit (announced Sunday) — all related to COVID-19 or staffing shortages.
What does it mean when a district has a “staffing shortage?” According to a memo provided to the Madison School Board Dec. 31, it’s 44 unfilled absences of 123 already reported for Jan. 3 as of Dec. 30.
“We note this data provides an extremely conservative projection of substitute needs due to most substitute requests occurring the night before (or the morning of) instruction,” the memo states.
Of those 44 unfilled roles last week, 23 were special education assistants, nine were teachers, seven were bilingual resource teachers, three were cross-categorical teachers and two were bilingual special education teachers.
Those unfilled substitute spots are exacerbated by the 74 teaching vacancies and 43 educational assistant vacancies across the district reported to HR.
According to the memo, some schools have it worse than others — Lapham Elementary School, Whitehorse Middle School and West High School had six teacher planned absences already. At Whitehorse, there are also two teacher vacancies and one staff leave request.
Superintendent Carlton Jenkins pointed out during a Friday press conference that schools’ options for overcoming staff shortages are also limited by pandemic mitigation measures.
“Some of the things we can't do that we used to be able to do,” Jenkins said. “We used to double up classrooms and that was kind of a simple solution.
“Well, with the spread rate and the proximity, you just can't double up classrooms, you just can't increase the study hall.”
The district’s vaccine requirement for staff, which went into effect in December, also resulted in 78 terminations — including 49 substitutes.
Area schools concerned, remain open
Other Dane County districts, none of which have delayed their return from winter break, expressed similar staffing concerns.
Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District's director of information and public relations Shannon Valladolid wrote in an email Monday the district has the staff for in-person schooling right now, “but we need to be flexible with staffing assignments within and across buildings.” She cited “severe sub shortages for all employee groups” and staff in quarantine or isolation as the main challenges at the moment.
While she hoped the district can maintain in-person instruction, she acknowledged that “the current reality is presenting a daily challenge in all of our schools.”
Verona Area School District superintendent Tremayne Clardy, formerly a Madison administrator, wrote in a Monday email that his district “saw a small increase in teaching and support staff absences today.” On a typical day, he said, they are able to fill nearly 75% of those vacancies, but Monday’s rate was just 63%.
“Any unfilled positions were covered in the building by licensed VASD staff,” Clardy wrote.
He added that the staffing challenges are “relatively consistent when compared to where we were prior to winter break,” and that the district’s goal is “to maintain our commitment to in-person instruction five days a week.”
“VASD will continue to promote strong mitigation efforts,” he wrote. “Additionally, we will continue to monitor our staffing and positive case numbers on (a) daily basis.”
The Oregon School District has created a "building substitute position" that offers 4-5 days a week of a structured schedule and higher pay than usual substitutes amid the challenging staffing environment, district communications director Erika Mundinger wrote in an email Tuesday.
"We are experiencing similar staffing challenges to schools around the state and country, which includes a shortage of substitute teachers to cover classes when staff are out due to illness or caring for their own sick children," she wrote. "To this point, we've been able to cover substitute shortages with staff giving up prep times and administrators covering classes; however, this is not ideal."
In the Waunakee Community School District, communications and engagement specialist Anne Blackburn wrote in an email Tuesday, the number of available and active substitute teachers in their substitute teaching pool has declined three years in a row.
"Our schools are having to work daily with unfilled sub requests resulting in administrators covering openings or other teachers using their prep periods to teach for other classrooms," Blackburn wrote.
The Cap Times reached out to more area districts Monday but did not receive an immediate response.