With hundreds of teachers declining to return to campus, Palm Beach County public schools are struggling with a glut of unstaffed classrooms in the first days of in-person classes.
Nearly 900 school district teachers – roughly 1 of every 13 – chose to stay home Tuesday, using sick leave or other personal time, the district said. The absences are a modest decline from the 944 who did not show for work Monday when campuses reopened.
Unable to find enough substitutes, many principals are resorting to asking teachers to supervise two classes at once or sending other employees to monitor rooms where the assigned teacher is absent.
When a class monitor can’t be found, some teacher-less students are being directed to wait in overflow rooms until their next period begins, teachers and administrators told The Palm Beach Post.
“There was a sign on my door, sending all students elsewhere,” said one district teacher, who stayed home Monday and requested anonymity to speak frankly about school operations. “It was the same case for another colleague.”
Educators say there is no easy short-term fix for the teacher crunch. The same coronavirus concerns keeping many teachers home are also making substitutes hesitant to accept teaching gigs.
“You can’t find them,” said Stacy Tepper, a veteran math teacher at L.C. Swain Middle School in Greenacres. “We have like 14 or 15 people out on virtual (assignments), and there’s no subs.”
Classrooms “are being assigned to the ESOL instructor, or the guidance counselor or the P.E. teachers,” Tepper said. “Everybody’s pitching in.”
While 894 teachers were reported absent Tuesday across the district’s roughly 180 campuses, the district reported only 387 substitutes were deployed, meaning administrators could not find substitute teachers for more than half of Tuesday’s unstaffed classrooms.
“Over the last two days we have averaged around 42% substitute fill rate, which is below our average,” said Gonzalo La Cava, the district’s human resources director. “The district is using all resources to reach out to our substitutes, and I believe our numbers will start to improve as the school year evolves.”
Some teachers are expected to start returning to campus as they burn through sick and vacation days.
But many are waiting to see whether they receive remote-work accommodations. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, could choose to resign or take a leave of absence rather than return to the classroom, exacerbating the staffing shortages.
So far this year, 64 teachers have resigned, 82 have taken leaves of absence and 278 with health complications have been granted remote-work assignments, the district said.
Deputy Schools Superintendent Keith Oswald said it’s not unusual for schools to have some staffing issues in the first days of classes, but he admitted that the shortfalls this year are “at a greater scale than usual.”
“Some principals were able to accommodate, and they worked within their school community to provide some coverage,” he said. “We also have central office staff out supporting schools as well.”
Oswald pointed out that in most cases, teachers and students were happy to be together in their classrooms, acclimating to overhauled campuses and new teaching techniques.
“Everything else has gone extremely smoothly,” he said. “Teachers and administrators are going through the new normal.”
But further complicating the district’s staffing challenges is the increasing number of students showing up for in-person learning.
The district said 2,000 more students came to campus Tuesday – totaling an estimated 58,000, though attendance numbers were still being tabulated in the afternoon.
That number is expected to keep rising as families grow more at ease with sending their children back to school. A likely result, administrators say, is some teachers on remote work assignments being summoned back to their classrooms.
For many teachers, the return to the classroom has been stressful and physically taxing.
After returning to campus Monday, Tepper said she had to call in sick Tuesday with a crushing migraine. The veteran teacher, who suffers from asthma, blamed the toll of wearing a mask all day long.
She said she wasn’t alone.
“I was struggling yesterday, and not only I was but everyone else,” she said. “We’re all walking around lethargic and stressed out.”
Tepper, who said she thinks schools should have remained online-only until the end of the semester, worried the health risks and the challenge of teaching both online and in-person students would drive away too many veteran educators, crippling their campuses.
“We’re the glue,” she said. “We’re the ones everyone goes to to train and to help and to mentor the new teachers.”