The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present unforeseen challenges to the Fort Smith area. One of those ways is finding enough substitute teachers to cover teacher absences in Fort Smith Public Schools.
“Staffing classrooms that need substitutes is a challenge under normal circumstances. The pandemic complicates matters significantly,” said Zena Featherston Marshall, FSPS executive director of communication and community partnerships.
The district had to “pivot to online learning” Jan. 15 and Jan. 19 because they did not have enough substitutes to cover all the teacher absences. The district had a similar pivot to online learning Nov. 20. The district’s schedule for the school year had on-line learning days scheduled for Nov. 23 and 24.
FSPS active and close contact numbers have remained relatively steady. The Jan. 18 report from the Arkansas Department of Education listed 107 active COVID cases in FSPS, down from 116 in the Jan. 14 report. The district has 949 cumulative cases, with 268 faculty and staff and 642 students.
The district generally covers 80% to 85% (sometimes more) of absences that require substitutes, Marshall said.
“The process is however taxing in that under normal circumstances, FSPS will see pockets of absences in a few schools. The pandemic and quarantining students and their teachers have guaranteed that many more schools will be involved at any given time,” she said.
Fort Smith was limited in the number of qualified substitutes who are able to work in classrooms during the pandemic, Marshall said. But the district has taken steps to hopefully, help.
“Late this past summer, FSPS increased the daily substitute rate to $95. The district also employs adults who are 18 years or older to substitute teach,” she said.
All FSPS substitutes must participate in district training and receive a clear background check before they sub. So far in the 2020-21 school year, the FSPS human resource department has hosted five substitute workshops and two more are planned. The department also has included the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith College of Education and the Babb Center in planning and recruiting, Marshall said, noting the district also uses social media and word of mouth to recruit additional substitutes.
“Response has been good to these recent changes. The district has added 106 substitutes to its roster since August 2020. However, this does not relieve the total need,” she said.
In order to help with higher than normal absences are also filled by assistant principals from other buildings and itinerant staff.
“Teams of educators who do not work in classrooms everyday are ready to assist any school at any time. FSPS has also reduced the out-of-building professional development requirements that could impact the district’s ability to staff classrooms because of illness or quarantine,” Marshall said.
Marshall said the pivot to online learning earlier this week and Jan. 15 allowed teachers, principals and parents an opportunity to regroup and catch up. Because the district left all schools open allowing parents the opportunity to bring students to school if they needed, substitute teachers already scheduled in the buildings were able to provide necessary supervision for groups of online learners.