ELKHART — Since putting their reopening plans to the test in August, all public school districts in Elkhart County have experienced some COVID-related closures, with many citing a shortage of staff and substitutes to fill the gap as the primary reason.
Over the last few weeks, many local schools have put a halt to in-person instruction and moved to virtual learning as community positivity rates climb across the state and staffing challenges grow.
In some cases, administrators say student-to-student contact remains minimal in schools. But the quarantines required for those who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 outside the school have created vacancies in classroom supervision needed for face-to-face instruction.
At Elkhart Community Schools, the county’s largest school corporation, school officials put the brakes on the high school’s hybrid plan last week for the remainder of the semester and the first two weeks of the second semester.
The high school currently operates on two campuses – the east campus, the former Elkhart Central, and the west campus, formerly Elkhart Memorial.
With the hybrid plan, Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said, the schools have adequate space to distance students and ensure cleaning and safety supplies, but staff shortages have become an issue.
“There were some days within our high schools, for example, we were down 30 staff members,” he said. “And even in our elementary schools, there were days we were down 10 or over a dozen staff members and we did have to close a few of our elementary schools for a few weeks just to allow those staffing levels to rebound.”
About 40 percent of high-schoolers are already enrolled in the virtual program, Thalheimer said. By moving fully virtual, he said, the switch would help ensure rising quarantine and viral spread don’t continue to interrupt the district’s ability to teach and learn.
“The high school students, more than the younger students, can manage online learning,” he said. “We wanted to take the time heading into what everyone was predicting and what we’re seeing as a terrible winter where cases would be going up and we knew we’d be experiencing a lot of absences. By going virtual, we would not have to worry about the staffing issue as much at the high school level and we could redirect resources and personnel to help out at the middle schools and elementary schools”
High school students will return to the hybrid plan on Jan. 19 following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“The plan to return two weeks into January for the high school students will allow for an incubation period after the holiday break to allow any COVID cases from that time to run their course,” Thalheimer said.
Elkhart Community Schools has also seen a significant decline in active substitute teachers this year, according to Cheryl Waggoner, human resource director.
The district has 169 active subs in the sub pool this year, down from the 225 active subs last year, Waggoner said.
Thalheimer said administrators have done the typical recruiting, however, many substitutes opted not to return this year for a variety of safety concerns.
“Subs can often be people who are retired or late-career and so some of those individuals are in the at-risk category, and so some chose not to come back to us for that reason and other reasons,” he said. “We did try to ask subs who have been committed to the district to assign them to a particular school building so there would always be a sub available for that school knowing that we’d experience higher absences and in some respects, we were able to do that and for others, we were not.”
Most substitutes are paid $95 for a full day and $50 for a half day. However, the daily rate increases based on certain criteria being met, such as covering long-term assignments, being a retired teacher, or holding a teacher’s license, Waggoner said.
To become a sub for Elkhart Community Schools, one must submit an application including resume/cover letter, provide transcripts showing at least 30 college credit hours, pass a criminal and reference check and obtain a substitute permit with the Indiana Department of Education.
Officials at Wa-Nee Community Schools recently opted to keep NorthWood High School on virtual learning until Dec. 18 and return to in-person instruction after winter break on Jan. 4.
“There came a point where we simply did not have enough staff members to adequately fill our vacancies on a daily basis,” said Superintendent Scot Croner. “Thus, the decision was made to transition to virtual learning so our available staff could be re-allocated to support in-person learning at other buildings.”
Croner said although school officials believe there is no replacement for in-person learning, students and staff have adjusted to the transition smoothly.
“Our students and staff have done an excellent job making an imperfect learning environment the best it can possibly be,” he said.
Wa-Nee has experienced a slight decrease in its substitute pool this year, Croner said.
The district decided to incentivize those individuals that are already on the substitute roster to take additional vacancies when offered. Once substitutes have completed their 50th day of service during a school year, their pay increases by $20 per day.
Meanwhile at Concord Community Schools, students in grades 7-12 recently moved from a hybrid learning model to a fully virtual format due to a high number of positive COVID-19 cases and the need to quarantine a large number of students and staff at those grade levels, school officials said.
Superintendent Dan Funston said part of the reason for the transition is that secondary level students move between classes, thus potentially interacting with a larger pool of people while in person.
“We decided to keep our grade K-6 students in the hybrid format for several reasons, but especially because we know students at these younger grades greatly benefit from in-person instruction, even more so than their older peers,” Funston said. “Additionally, these students remain with their core group of peers and are able to remain more socially distant. We will, however, continue to closely monitor our internal and community data and make targeted closures of classrooms or buildings to avoid the spread.”
Concord’s active sub pool this year is 59, down significantly from the 155 last year, according to Julie Beer, the district’s communications coordinator.
“One of the reasons for a decline in the number of substitute teachers is that we have a strong blended learning environment that allows for our teachers to work from home,” she said, “even when they are in quarantine because they have been identified as a close contact to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.”
The district plans to announce its instruction plans for the second semester before winter break, which starts Dec. 18, Funston said.
“It has been our goal from the start of the school year to transition to a more fully in-person learning environment,” he said. “We are closely monitoring our internal COVID-19 data, as well as data from local and state health departments as we consider a shift back to fully in-person learning.”
Goshen Community Schools’ students in grades 7-12 were supposed to have the option to return to in-person learning Monday, Nov. 30, said Superintendent Steve Hope, but worsening pandemic metrics in Elkhart County will keep students out of the classroom until at least Dec. 11.
Secondary-level students originally moved to a fully virtual format on Nov. 16 due to student and teacher absences, school officials said.
The district has about half the number of subs it had last year, according to Susan Stiffney, director of human resource services.
To address the shortage, Stiffney said the district has contacted all subs that worked last year, started an employee of the month program, a cash reward referral program, developed and shared an extensive social media package.
“We feel our GCS Return to School Plan has helped a shortened day in the elementary,” she said. “All of our music, art and physical education teachers put lessons online so they could assist in classrooms during the day. A block schedule for both Goshen Middle School and Goshen High School reduces the number of teachers a student interacts with in a day. GCS also had a program where in-house teachers are reimbursed for covering an open class period.”
Students in grades K-6 will continue to attend in-person classes four days a week, with a virtual learning day on Wednesdays.
Goshen Schools will provide an update on its course of action on or before Dec. 9.
For similar reasons, Baugo Community Schools also extended its virtual-only instruction for K-12 students to at least Dec. 11.
The district switched from in-person to fully virtual on Nov. 9 due to a high number of student and staff quarantines from the COVID-19 pandemic. The district was supposed to resume in-person instruction on Nov. 30 but extended due to Elkhart County reaching red status.
Superintendent Byron Sanders said the school board is reviewing the district’s continuous learning plan and considering all data in deciding the next steps before winter break starts next week.