Local school superintendents, as huge numbers of teachers and instructional aides have been sidelined due to the surging coronavirus, have had to get creative in terms of finding replacements.
They’re aggressively recruiting substitute teachers, hiring full-time subs, and in some cases, even looking to college students either doing online learning themselves or home for winter break, all in an effort to keep classrooms open.
“It’s been a challenge,” admitted Greg Parsley, superintendent of the Vincennes Community School Corp., adding that there were usually, on average, at least two classrooms per day that they just couldn’t get covered.
A few years ago, the VCSC Board of Trustees voted to bump up the pay for substitute teachers, specifically retired teachers willing to come back once in awhile.
That hasn’t, however, been enough to keep adequate subs, Parsley said, as so many retired teachers find themselves in a high-risk health category and, therefore, not comfortable being in the classroom surrounded by youngsters.
“So we went to the other extreme,” he said, “and looked at college students. Many of them were doing e-learning or virtual learning, which made them available.
Parsley said looking to college students, particularly ones majoring in the fields of education, is something the school corporation has looked to often when in need of substitute teachers.
It’s never been done, though, to this extent, he said, adding that they are, however, rarely put at the high school.
“We know these kids well. We keep close track of them. We hope, down the road, we may have a job for them. It’s worked out well for us,” he said.
Parsley, too, said the VCSC’s instructional assistants have repeatedly stepped up to the plate, whether to sub for a teacher either out with COVID-19 or in quarantine due to exposure or just be in the room while the teacher teaches from home.
That, he said, has been a huge help. The corporation also last semester — and will again next semester — hire full-time substitute teachers.
“We hired four of them and, basically, told them they would be working every day,” he said.
South Knox superintendent Tim Grove said they, too, used a handful of college students during the fall semester. That’s not uncommon, he added.
What they’ve seen more of, he said, are people from the South Knox community come forward and offer to help, even getting the necessary licensure.
“We have a substantial staff of instructional assistants, and we’ve been able to use those,” he said. “And we’ve had a number of parents who have seen the need; they know we’re down. So they’ve gotten licenses to be substitute teachers. It’s been amazing. We didn’t expect that to happen.”
Grove, too, said even administrators have stepped in when necessary, sometimes going back to the classroom after years of being away.
“Right before Thanksgiving I got worried,” he said. “I thought, ‘if we have anymore out we may have to go virtual.’ But we weathered the storm, and hopefully we’ll be OK the second semester.
“We’ve all just worked together and done whatever had to be done to get our classrooms covered,” he said.
North Knox superintendent Darrel Bobe said his instructional assistants, too, have made all the difference. With their help, he said, they haven’t had to yet look to other resources.
“They’ve done more than I’ve ever dreamed to keep things going,” he said. “We’ve looked at every possible angle to help our teachers, from aides to our regular substitute teachers, and everyone has stepped up.
“I couldn’t have asked for more from our staff. It’s been a team effort, and I feel fortunate to be around people that care about keeping kids in school.”
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Other school corporations, both in Indiana and across the country, have relied heavily on college students.
The 4,400-student Greenfield-Central school district about 20 miles east of Indianapolis made a plea for help as its substitute pool shrank.
“I said, ‘If you’ve got a student who’s in college, maybe they’d like to work even a two-month thing for us — which would be a stopgap, no doubt — but it will help us a whole, whole bunch,” said Scott Kern, the Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation director of human resources.
Over a dozen college students answered the call including his own daughter, 19-year-old Grace Kern, who is studying medical imaging technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She has been working in elementary school classrooms, helping students as teachers offer instruction remotely via a screen inside the room.
“My dad told me that a bunch of teachers are out and they’re struggling to get substitutes in. And I was like, ‘Well, all my classes are online, except for one, so I have the time to do it.’ And I would hate for the schools and the students to struggle,” she said.
The teaching force already was stretched in many places before the pandemic hit as fewer students entered the profession, and retirees who often fill in as substitutes have been staying home in large numbers because of concerns about their health. As contact tracing forces teachers into quarantine, staffing shortages have become so severe that many schools have had no choice but to switch to distance learning.
In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, appealed late last month to college students who were coming home for their winter break to help in hospitals, virus testing sites — and in schools. In cases where teachers are leading instruction remotely because they have to be in quarantine, for example, Lamont said college students could be paid to come into the classrooms and help provide supervision.
“Look you could binge watch Netflix for three weeks but we have some other ways that you could really be of assistance, helping your entire community get through this pandemic,” Lamont said at a news briefing.
Isabel Orozco, a freshman at Wellesley College, is working as a substitute teacher in the Cheshire, Connecticut district, where she graduated high school in June. She said she’s considering taking all of her spring semester classes online, so she can continue working in the public schools.
“Anything I can do to help, I feel good about,” she said.
College students have been tapped in growing numbers this year by Kelly Education, which contracts with districts to provide substitutes. Company president Nicola Soares said the pandemic has laid bare problems with shortages that have been worsening for years.
“So when I think about the pandemic and everything that we have seen for the past 10 months it has absolutely exacerbated the issue around teacher shortages and also substitute teacher shortages,” Soares said, adding that she doesn’t expect much relief next school year. “We have seen a lot of folks leave the profession. The openings are going to increase, so it is domino effect.”
In South Carolina, Lisa Usry, of Charleston, encountered this firsthand. One of her first jobs of the year was filling in for a teacher in his mid-60s who quit abruptly.
“He worked a couple weeks and said, ‘I’m out of here’ and walked out the door,” she recalled.
In Nebraska, more districts are applying for exemptions to a requirement that substitutes have a teaching certificate. The exemption, once only used by a few large districts, allows administrators to hire subs who have 60 college credits and have completed a teaching course and another that addresses bias and discrimination.
Because the state’s substitute requirements had been so high, it had relied heavily on retirees in years past, said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association. But it has been a harder sell this year, with the association finding that only 33% of the 500 retired teachers it surveyed in August planned to sub this year, while the others said no or were unsure.
Seventy-four-year-old Pat Shepard, a retired Spanish teacher from of Lincoln, Nebraska, was among those who went ahead and kept working, more even than past years as her district offered bonuses for subs that committed to a certain number of jobs each month. Some of her substitute teacher friends, though, decided to take the year off.
The 13th annual Watermelon Drop has been canceled, according to event chair Steven Gott.
The wacky New Year’s Eve celebration is the last in a long list of annual events to be cancelled this year as a result of COVID-19 concerns.
“We discussed it in depth and just see no way we can properly socially distance in the tent,” said Gott. “Especially if the weather turns frigid, as it often does, the crowd would seek to huddle together, and that’s the problem.”
Though event organizers are hopeful the the drop returns to ring in 2022, they say it’s too early to predict whether or not it will be revived, citing a dwindling number of volunteers as a primary concern.
“At some point we’ll need new, younger volunteers to join forces if we’re going to keep it going,” said Duane Chattin, a former city councilman.
As a long-time volunteer organizer of the event, Chattin said he’s seen not just volunteers fade, but the crowd of spectators has dwindled some too in recent years.
But he’s hopeful area residents once again find enthusiasm for the unique spectacle that provides fun and attracts national attention, joining a list of cities across the United States who celebrate the stroke of midnight by splattering everything from pies to pickles.
The Watermelon Drop in Vincennes typically features about 20 Knox County watermelons falling from a giant, 500-pound metal watermelon onto the “splatform” below at the stroke of midnight.
“I certainly hope it has a future going forward. It’s not one of our most highly attended festivals, but I can think of few others that draw as much national attention,” Chattin said, adding that every community needs “some wacky” things to balance out the serious side of life.
While they say cancellation was the right call from a public health standpoint, it’s not lost on the event’s organizers just how much need there is for a little extra joy and laughter right now.
“It’s been a really rough year. At this point there are few people who haven’t been touched in some way by this pandemic, so it’s been tough,” Chattin said, adding that he personally has endured the loss of loved ones to the virus.
Organizers say by summer there should be a clearer sense of lingering COVID-19 threats and will then determine whether they have adequate support to revive the Watermelon Drop.
For now, Gott says, “considering that last year’s Watermelon Drop celebrated the arrival of 2020, perhaps it’s for the best that we skip the 13th annual drop” this year.
Bicknell mayor Thomas Estabrook describes 2020 as the a year spent “covered up with COVID concerns.”
In spite of the pandemic, Estabrook, who was named the 2019 Newsmaker of the Year by the Sun-Commercial, said 2020 still brought many good things to Bicknell, including the continuation of road repaving projects, clean up of neglected properties, the purchase of a new firetruck and funding to move forward with a splash pad, among other city improvements.
“They weren’t necessarily big, flashy things, but good and exciting nonetheless,” Estabrook said.
Bicknell, in April of this year, completed the work from a repaving project with funds from the state’s Community Crossings Matching Grant program.
Estabrook said, thanks to the grant matching program, the city was able to repave all or portions of twelve streets, which included a total reconstruction of North Main Street, allowing improvements to corners, sidewalks and water drainage.
The Community Crossings program is one Estabrook has his sights on again in the new year, saying he will apply in the first quarter of 2021.
“We will be the first ones standing in line for the program. If we get the money, we will pave in 2021,” he said.
Bicknell, too, has continued utilizing funds from the state’s Hardest Hit Blight Elimination Fund. Estabrook said with more than $660,000 in total funding, the city tore down roughly 40 unsafe houses.
“We were originally slated to do thirty houses, but we were able to get through forty,” he said. “We’ve been able to clean up a lot of neighborhoods.”
That too is something Estabrook plans to push forward into the new year, noting that these improvement projects are among the city’s most important.
“We’ve made a lot of traction with getting people to cooperate with cleaning up trash, junk and weeds, and I want us to keep working toward stabilizing and revitalizing our neighborhoods,” he said.
In addition to infrastructure and beautification of Bicknell, the mayor says he was excited to see some new businesses open this year.
Basiloid Diversified Products, a manufacturer of fork lift parts, set up shop at the local industrial park, 7382 Russell Drive, and Family Dollar opened on Hwy. 67 in July.
“These expansions mean new job possibilities,” Estabrook said.
Perhaps the most exciting news of 2020 for youngsters in Bicknell is word that a splash pad will be funded next year.
Swimland, Bicknell’s privately owned swimming pool since 1963, has not been operational since health officials closed it in 2019. So, says Estabrook, he was thrilled the city secured $150,000 in funding from the Knox County Redevelopment Commission this year to construct a splash pad in 2021.
“Bids will go out in January, and we hope to have it ready to go by Memorial Day,” he said.
Despite the completion of several improvement projects in 2020, Estabrook is ready to say farewell to the year and move on to the hope that 2021 offers. Specifically, the mayor is ready for Labor Day 2021.
“I can’t begin to express how upsetting it was for me to cancel our annual Labor Day celebration,” he said.
If, by that first weekend in September, the public health crisis abates, Estabrook says the city will host the holiday, “even if I’m the only one marching in the parade.
“But, I hope everybody and their brother shows up to Bicknell for Labor Day 2021.”