COVID cases, staffing shortages has Oxford schools juggling to teach
By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
Schools across the country and state have had to close, temporarily, in recent weeks thanks to the ongoing worker shortage and COVID outbreaks. Oxford is no exception, as both the high school and the middle school switched to remote learning Monday and Tuesday this week. The rest of the week is off for the Thanksgiving holiday.
COVID-19 is on the rise again. The district reported 59 active student cases and 15 active staff cases Friday, Nov. 19. The administration foresaw early last week that a rise in quarantined staff members and lack of substitutes meant they would not have “enough coverage to remain operational as a whole.” So, they moved all middle and high school students remote, while shifting support staff from those schools to the elementary schools in order to “continue providing in-person instruction for our youngest learners.”
Remote learning was synchronous, meaning students were expected to log in and stay on during their usual class times. Attendance was still taken for each class.
The switch follows a two-day closure of Leonard Elementary, Nov. 11 and 12, due to staff COVID cases and a shortage of substitutes. According to the district’s Nov. 12 weekly COVID-19 update, the school had five active staff cases, or 17% of the building staff population. “We will be utilizing two emergency closure days because remote learning is not possible due to the logistics of this specific situation,” administration wrote in a notice to parents.
For similar reasons, the school district’s transportation department had to combine several bus routes last week. Parents of students on the impacted routes were notified by email. “Our hope is this situation is temporary,” said Supt. Tim Throne, thanking parents for understanding. “As always, you are free to drive your child(ren) or find alternate transportation for them.”
Right now, the department has 36 drivers and three substitute drivers. To be fully staffed, they need 38 drivers and eight substitutes. “I would like to hire two drivers for the open positions and hire a minimum of 4-5 substitute drivers to cover illness and afternoon athletic trips,” Transportation Director Ann Weeden said.
Since the start of the school year they have been short at least two or three drivers every day. One day last week they were down by six. “Unlike some other school districts, I have not had to cancel any bus routes because we did not have enough drivers, but the situation has been less than ideal,” Weeden said.
Four office staff, including herself, are also licensed bus drivers. “These staff really need to be in the office answering the phones and handling the day-to-day operation of the department, but are instead driving every day,” she said. “I am very thankful for the extra effort and the ‘all in’ mentality of my team to step up and do what is needed for our students, otherwise we would not have made it this far.”
“From a staffing perspective,” said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources David Pass, “it has been more difficult this year than it’s ever been.” His department has been able to fill all certified teaching positions and most para-educators, but the greatest need is for substitute teachers.
Demand is even higher than usual because so many teachers are out with COVID or in quarantine. “We’ve got teachers filling in, we have para-educators who have sub permits filling in those vacancies,” he said. “It’s really an all-hands-on-deck to make it work. We have principals that are subbing in classrooms, particularly at the elementary level, on a pretty regular basis.”
The district recently increased pay rates for substitutes, “so we are seeing a little more interest, but we certainly have a long ways to go to fill those positions.”
Pass said the district has about 75 active substitutes, but they get to choose when they want to work and what jobs to take. “The number of people available to us is not necessarily indicative of how many people are willing to work on any given day,” he said. The district uses a different substitute staffing company than surrounding districts, but it is possible some substitutes work for both companies, so they might be competing with other districts for those subs.
Because of those variables, it is hard to say exactly how many more substitutes the district needs to make sure they are filled on a daily basis. “I don’t really know. I just know that we’re not there yet, because on any given day we have shortages we’re not able to fill,” Pass said.
It can be even trickier with food service and transportation, because there isn’t such a pool of people to tap in when those workers are out. “Subs are near impossible to find in those areas,” he said. There’s also a need for regular noon aides.
A broader shortage or regular teachers has challenged the education field in recent years. “There just aren’t enough people in the teaching profession looking for jobs compared to the number of jobs that are available,” Pass said.
It used to be that most positions were filled before the start of the school year. Now, because so many districts have openings, some teachers leave for those districts in the middle of the year. So, Pass is hiring a lot more than he used to throughout the year. “We’ve done okay in finding some great teachers, but we don’t get near the number of applicants that we might have seen even four or five years ago.”
The problem is certainly not unique to this area. “Oxford is a great place and we do attract some really quality people, but it’s a very different job market than it was.”
Pass encourages anyone interested in working for the district to contact the Human Resources Department or apply online at oxfordschools.org/departments/human_resources/job_postings___volunteer_info.