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As school year approaches, leaders worry about teacher, staff shortages, protecting vulnerable

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

While school leaders grapple with how to safely and effectively reopen their classrooms next month, high on their lists of concerns is how to find enough teachers and staff to cover the expected COVID-19-related leaves and retirements.

Even before the coronavirus, teachers and substitute teachers were in short supply in many school systems. 

“We were already having difficulty finding substitutes,” Russellville City Schools Superintendent Heath Grimes said about staffing prior to COVID-19. There are four schools in his system. Grimes is in the process of hiring permanent substitutes for each of them to help cover accrued sick, vacation or medical leaves, which can be weeks at a time, that teachers may take in the upcoming year. After that, he’s working on a plan to put other staff members in classrooms as needed. 

The Alabama Association of School Boards recently put together a list of frequently asked questions regarding personnel for school administrators. Included are the variety of leave options available to teachers if they or family members contract COVID-19, if they’re exposed to COVID-19 at school or if they have concerns about their health ( Lack of child care for young children as the pandemic continues could also be an issue for some teachers and substitute teachers.

Grimes said he’s asked teachers to let administrators know now if they plan to take any leave early in the school year. 

Vic Wilson, executive director of the Council of Leaders in Alabama Schools, said he’s encouraged administrators to have a proposal for teacher retirements prompted by the virus and shortages of substitute teachers and other staff, including bus drivers.

“If you have people who fall in the high-risk category, you better have a plan,” said Wilson, who last year served on a statewide teacher shortage task force. 

Bus driver availability is especially concerning for Grimes.

“Even if we can find substitute teachers, not everyone is qualified to drive a bus,” Grimes said. Many of his bus drivers are retired from other professions and are older.

As of Monday, Alabama has had 54,768 confirmed COVI-19 cases since March and 1,096 deaths. About one-third of the cases have been reported in the last two weeks. While most of the deaths, 79%, have been people age 65 or older and with underlying health conditions, most of the reported cases of COVID-19 are in younger adults. Nearly 42% of cases have been in adults age 25 to 49; 20% of cases have been people age 5 to 24.

Students and staff with pre-existing health conditions that could make COVID-19 more dangerous to them are of especial concern to administrators.

Roanoke City Schools Superintendent Chuck Marcum said his district is considering using those high-risk educators for virtual instruction. 

“We’re going to do everything in our power not to lose any teachers,” he said about educators considering retirement.

The state’s teacher shortage is well documented. Last year, ADN reported that:

  • Since 2010, there’s been a 40% decrease in students entering teacher education programs;
  • Eight percent of teachers leave the profession each year, only about one-third of those departures are due to retirement;
  • Thirty percent of Alabama classrooms are taught by “out of field” teachers with no background in the subject they’re teaching.

“Those numbers could be exacerbated in areas that are hard to staff in the best of times,” Wilson, who is a former Hartselle City Schools superintendent, said. 

Legislation to make teachers’ retirement benefits more generous died in the 2019 session and didn’t get traction in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 session. Proposed teacher pay raises for 2021 also died, along with increases for state employees, when state leaders were concerned about the virus’s impact on state revenues.

Marcum said he hasn’t gotten any COVID-19-related retirement notices but knows some teachers are considering it.

“If they retire before school starts, the candidates aren’t there to replace them,” he said. 

The Retirement Systems of Alabama last week told Alabama Daily News it had not seen an uptick in teacher retirements at this point. Applications for retirements in August were so far not out of the ordinary. 

“We may see an uptick as school systems come out with their individual plans for reopening, but at this point retirements are on track with the usual rates,” Neah Scott, legislative counsel at RSA, said. 

Alabama Education Association public relations director Ashley McLain said the group is surveying membership regarding COVID-19 and their feelings on what protections are necessary.

In Russellville, Grimes has a request to citizens.

“We really need people in our communities to consider being substitutes,” he said. “Every district is going to be in the need of substitutes.”

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