Grand Forks Public Schools, according to Superintendent Terry Brenner, needs to expand its pool of substitute teachers as the district works through the coronavirus pandemic. Recent decisions might help.
Brenner discussed a potential staff shortage during an interview last week with the Herald. As of that day, Sept. 8, there were some 50 adults in the district away from work due to COVID-19, including a dozen who had been infected and others who were in isolation. Those numbers have greatly improved – on Monday, Brenner reported three COVID cases and 10 close contacts – and perhaps the reduction in cases has taken the edge off finding subs. Still, it’s prudent to be working on the issue before demand overwhelms supply.
One problem is the age of many substitute teachers. Often, the district’s subs are veteran, retired educators. But since that particular age group is more susceptible to COVID-19 symptoms and therefore at greater risk, many have opted to not fill teaching absences this year. They are right to be wary.
Seeking help from college students in the education field is a logical step. Students who have completed 48 credit hours may apply for substitute teacher licenses. Thanks to the proximity of UND and schools like Mayville State and University of Minnesota Crookston, there are dozens if not hundreds of potential young teachers who may want the experience. Brenner seems enthusiastic to pursue this option.
Further, a decision last week by the state Education Standards and Practices Board might help. On Sept. 10, the board approved a motion to write emergency rules to allow paraprofessionals to obtain a substitute teaching license. At present, paras in North Dakota are certified by the state Department of Public Instruction, but they are not licensed as teachers by the ESPB.
Another recent move: Gov. Doug Burgum signed an order that overrides a rule that keeps substitute teachers from serving in a classroom for more than 10 consecutive days.
These are logical paths to follow as the state works to keep schools open. It’s good that students are returning to in-person education, provided exhaustive prevention steps are taken and an outbreak doesn’t occur.
Meanwhile, it’s important to stress that teacher safety is imperative if COVID-19 numbers rise. What number of cases among staff and faculty is too many?
The best possible scenario is occurring in Grand Forks: Most students are back in class, under the direction of the district’s full-time teachers. The teachers and students who are uncomfortable with a return are working online.
Unfortunately, absences are inevitable, due to all sorts of reasons. Filling substitute spots with local undergrads and paraprofessionals is a good short-term fix, but over time, these less-inexperienced subs cannot provide the same level of education that the district’s full-time teachers can provide. If the number of absent teachers spikes, the district must consider if it’s worth it to continue with in-person education.
In the meantime, the district – including its leaders, faculty and staff – should be commended for the options provided and efforts taken in the early weeks of the 2020-21 school year and for finding solutions to so many of the potential problems.