Lillian Simmons, a substitute teacher at Round Rock ISD for two years, said she does not plan to accept assignments in the district for the remainder of the school year.

The December and January spikes in COVID-19 cases throughout central Texas and beyond, combined with the fact that she is immunocompromised, make it unsafe for her to return to work, she said.

“[RRISD] needs submarines. They can’t have enough subs, but I’m just scared to go there because I’m scared of catching COVID,” she said. “I have lung damage from my rheumatoid arthritis.”

Data from the Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto ISDs show that his story is part of an ongoing trend centering on historical staffing and absence issues for districts in the region.

Central Texas saw a substantial increase in COVID-19 cases and subsequent absences during the 2021-22 winter break. This led administrators to take drastic measures, including amplified class sharing, the suspension of bus transportation at Hutto ISD, and the temporary cancellation of all campus and ISD Hutto and Pflugerville operations.

Additionally, district officials said positions in multiple departments — not just substitutes and teachers — have been extremely difficult to fill recently and throughout the pandemic.

Thus, the administrators of the three districts in the region have prioritized financial strategies and policies and other incentives in the hope of reversing the trend.

“Overall, in my 15 years in public education, this is the shortest staff we’ve had in a lot of areas,” said Tamra Spence, PfISD’s director of communications.

Immediate personnel crisis

Johanna Harmon, a teacher at PfISD’s Weiss High School, said she doesn’t recall having too much trouble finding a replacement for her classes before the COVID-19 pandemic, but lately there has been no enough people to meet the need.

“Replacements are always in demand, but what’s unique is the number of absences beyond the replacements we can even find,” Harmon said.

Recent data shows that the unmet under-demands of the three districts have generally increased from 11% to 17% in January 2019 to 45% to 61% in January 2022.

Jenny Lacoste-Caputo, RRISD’s public affairs and communications manager, said the district has adopted and considered several initiatives in an effort to reverse the momentum of the ongoing staffing shortage.

For the spring 2022 semester, the district approved a stipend for teachers who cover classes when a replacement is needed during their scheduling periods, she said.

So far, the district’s efforts to alleviate staffing shortages have worked and have not resulted in the cancellation of classes or programs, Lacoste-Caputo said.

HISD and PfISD were not so lucky.

HISD had to suspend all regular bus routes from January 10 due to a shortage of transport personnel.

The district also closed all campus operations Jan. 17-19 due to overwhelming numbers of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19.

In a letter to students, parents and staff, HISD Superintendent Celina Estrada Thomas said 200 staff and 1,680 students were absent Jan. 14.

Although the PfISD has so far not canceled bus operations, the district closed its schools and offices Jan. 21-24 due to COVID-19 cases.

While life-saving operations at RRISD have so far escaped temporary cancellations, Lacoste-Caputo said district administrators are not ruling out such measures.

“If we had enough staff absences that we couldn’t operate a school safely because we didn’t have enough staff, … then we would need to close that campus,” she said. declared.

Longer-term staff shortage

At RRISD, Lacoste-Caputo said the staffing crisis had more to do with absences caused by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases than the filling of permanent positions.

Although she said she could not respond to a request regarding the number of vacancies at RRSD, the district remained mostly well-staffed, even throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Statewide data shows that RRSD may circumvent a statewide trend centered on school district staff vacancies.

Public school advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas recently released its 2021 report on the Texas teaching workforce, which showed that from the 2010-11 school year through the 2019-2020 school year, retention rates for first-grade teachers statewide have dropped to 49.8 percent.

At PflSD and HISD, district officials said the staffing challenges that already accompanied statewide trends had been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic.

Spence said that like every other industry across the country, PfISD is feeling the pinch.

Teachers, substitutes, teacher’s aides, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and maintenance workers have all seen higher vacancies this school year compared to years before the COVID-19 pandemic. 19.

“No one has ever seen the number of vacancies in the middle of the year like we have right now,” Spence said. “It’s a struggle we see in all industries, but certainly in education, and Pflugerville is no different.”

Spence said she can’t speculate what role the pandemic has played on the staffing issue, but it’s certainly part of the cause.

August Plock, a Pflugerville High School teacher and president of the Pflugerville Educators Association, said he believes that while it plays a role, the pandemic does not constitute the entirety of the staffing challenges that know the districts.

Plock said with the recent rebound in the economy from a near free fall in mid-2020, teachers and other staff are looking for more lucrative opportunities outside of public education. He also said a wave of administrative retirements has led teachers to seek higher-paying positions in school district central offices, including at PfISD.

“So you get hit in three different ways,” Plock said.

• Spence said she is confident that many school districts across the country, including PfISD, are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels anytime soon.

The district could not provide specific numbers, but Spence confirmed that PfISD had about 60 teaching vacancies, about 60 education associates, about 70 transportation vacancies and about 20 custodial vacancies in mid -January.

Before the pandemic, Spence said any number of teaching vacancies above 20 would be considered high.

“Sixty is by far the highest number of vacancies I have ever seen at this stage,” she said.

Similarly, at HISD, Director of Human Capital Lindsie Almquist said the district had the most vacancies in the 2021-22 school year than any previous year.

HISD is also experiencing shortages in everything from teachers to subs, guards, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

“In the two years that I’ve served as Director of Human Capital, we’ve had the most teacher vacancies for the longest time in the last…four to five months that we’ve ever had” , Almquist said.

To advance

Administrators said they could not predict when the immediate spike in absences or longer-term staffing shortages would become more manageable for their respective districts, but they continue to initiate and approve actions to help stop the hemorrhage.

At RRISD, Lacoste-Caputo said officials were considering more salary increase measures for some staff, including replacements.

“These are not things that have been put in place yet, but they are things that are being considered right now,” she said.

Keeping staff on board and mitigating vacancies is an issue districts across the country are trying to address, Spence said.

For this reason, the PfISD is also stepping up its efforts to this end – from increased job fairs to salary increases for all staff to grants to help speed up the process of obtaining certification for associates in education to become teachers.

“Teachers and public education personnel are honestly modern-day heroes,” she said. “They offer a myriad of ways to take care of students. We do everything we can to compensate for this and show them that we need them.

HISD continues to take similar steps to retain staff, including recently issuing a $300 stipend in December to staff members who worked during the 2020-21 school year and returned for the 2021-22 school year.

She said the district also raised the daily minimum wage rate for substitute teachers to $120.

Almquist said it will remain crucial for HISD and districts around the world to continue to find ways to sustain jobs in education.

“We absolutely cannot support the future of our country unless we feed these people who serve these children,” she said. “And we can’t fix everything, … but we can provide a narrative that if we didn’t have a teacher, … you and I wouldn’t be here today because we wouldn’t have as successful as we are.”

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