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School districts ask parents to fill in as substitute teachers as COVID cases rise in Central Texas

First-grade students at Dawson Elementary School line up outside school.
Gabriel C. Pérez
First-grade students at Dawson Elementary School line up outside school before going on a reading walk.

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Chris Aguero, the principal at Austin Jewish Academy, says he has been preparing for this week since the pandemic started. He just didn't know when it would come.

"For 20-something months we have been planning to have a day like we had on Tuesday," he said.

That's when the school reopened after winter break. Like the beginning of every other week, the school tested all the students for COVID-19. This was the first time multiple students and staff tested positive. But Aguero had a plan to keep the school open, and so far it has controlled the spread of the virus.

"We had trust that the system we had in place was going to work," he said. "[The plan] includes small classes. It includes KN95 masks — we moved away from cloth masks. And it did work, but it was hard."

But now Aguero and school leaders all over Central Texas are facing another challenge: finding substitutes for the teachers and staff who have had to quarantine.

Substitute demand is breaking records

The highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus is causing another surge of cases in Travis County, and it's affecting school staff more than any other time in the pandemic. There has been a substitute shortage since the pandemic began, and now even more staff are unable to come to campus.

In Austin ISD this week, there were 384 substitute requests, 100 more than this week last year. Hays CISD also saw some of its highest requests this week. There weren't enough subs to cover in either district.

Francisca Schindler, the art teacher at Wooten Elementary in Austin, said staff members are filling in as subs and students are getting shuffled around.

"Say that there’s three classes in the fourth grade, and one teacher doesn’t show up," Schindler said. "Those students are divided amongst the other two classes, so now [teachers] have a class and a half.”

That's tricky at her campus, she said, because a lot of the classes are part of specific programs like dual language or English as a second language, so combining them takes away that specific language experience. As an elective teacher, she also has to deal with the understaffing issue.

"One day [this week] I was going to get the entire fifth grade, which is almost 70 students, in a portable, and I was just like, what?" she said. "What am I going to do with that many students? So that really concerned me.”

A 'plea' to parents

The day before Austin ISD students returned to school, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said she had a contingency plan in case this situation arose: Central Office staff would step in.

A flyer posted on the Hays Consolidated School District's Facebook page, asking parents to serve as substitute teachers.
A flyer posted on the Hays CISD's Facebook page asks parents to serve as substitute teachers.

“If we’re short on subs, each of us will be having areas that are closest to us that we could report to if necessary, instead of reporting to Central," Elizalde said. "I may be teaching science or math at a high school classroom.”

Nobody from AISD's Central Office served as substitutes this week, but staff members will begin getting assignments starting Monday, according to a spokesperson.

Hays CISD deployed its Central Office staff this week, but the district is also looking to parents to try and fill the gap.

"We know that we have people in our communities that volunteer at the campus, so we're doing a plea to have them consider being a substitute," said Fernando Medina, Hays CISD's chief human resources officer.

That's the route Aguero is taking as well. He said since his school has a smaller community, parents are easier to find than substitutes. It's also a less risky option when it comes to spreading the virus.

"We know that parents on a daily basis are exposed to their students, and the students in turn at school," he said. "So having a parent come and sub when they are already part of the greater school bubble makes a little bit more sense than someone whose behavior we just know nothing about."

Public school districts won't receive full funding from the state unless they stay open. Many colleges and universities in Central Texas are not planning to do in-person learning right away. This week, UT, Austin Community College and Texas State all announced they will do virtual classesthe first two weeks of the semester.

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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