Many schools in Indiana are working to provide some sort of in-person instruction to students as they reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some school leaders say a shortage of teachers could force them to once again move students online.
Teachers everywhere are providing instruction in person, online, and in some cases, both. But substitute teachers are in high demand and have been in critically short supply.
Frontier School Corporation Superintendent Dan Sichting says his corporation employs 50 certified teachers, and has just five substitutes on hand this fall. Only two of them are available to work at the junior-senior high school.
"This is by far more difficult than any other years that we've seen up to this point," Sichting said.
He says the shortages have meant closing things like the school library or computer lab for the day while existing staff fill in.
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But Beech Grove High School principal Lizz Walters says solutions she and other leaders have looked to for temporary relief in the past are wearing thin.
Teachers have given up their prep time to cover classes in a crunch before. But she says things have intensified this year, and it's not fair – or feasible – to ask teachers to regularly give up the small amount of time they have during the day to get ready for the classes they usually teach.
"You know we're now looking at the possibility of doing that more than once or twice a week, so that's very difficult from a sustainability standpoint," Walters says.
Many of the substitutes that school corporations like Sichting's rely on are retired, and he says several of them have concerns about their health and safety as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Others, like Noblesville substitute teacher Deb Marcum aren't as worried about the possible health risks. But Marcum said she's been pulled into a regular teaching role as her school navigates how they should conduct learning online and in-person at the same time.
Which means, one less substitute teacher available to cover when other classroom leaders get sick, have to quarantine, or need time off.
"To be honest with you it'll be a shortage of teachers that will cause schools to close rather than I think the illness of kids," Marcum said.
State leaders have urged schools to at least prepare for a return to online learning as the fallout from the ongoing pandemic continues. And Walters said she and others have prepared to move online in case local health departments close schools because of the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
But the start of flu season is here, and Sichting and Walters both said they're already thinking about whether or not they will need to shift to online learning – and when – if they don't find more qualified staff soon.