STERLING – Unfilled positions and a staff already coping with COVID-19 challenges have Sterling Public Schools looking at the autumn with some trepidation.
Representatives of the teaching and staff unions and the superintendent all spoke to the school board during its Sept. 22 meeting. Pandemic-related adjustments have contributed to some issues or made others worse, officials said.
The reports were informational as no has leveled complaints, but school officials haven’t had a chance to ease into the opening month of the school year. The pace is unlikely to subside.
“We’re just trying to gut it out right now,” Superintendent Tad Everett said after the meeting.
Multiple job openings
Since the start of the school year, SPS has been advertising for multiple positions in areas of special education. The district also needs aides and clerks.
While the demand for substitute teachers, teaching assistants, nurses and secretaries is ever-present, the state’s COVID-19 requirements for vaccination, regular testing and quarantines have created a need unlike any Everett has seen in his 14 years, he said.
Recently, the district added to its needs, posting for two administrative assistant openings in human resources and with the registrar.
SPS offers competitive pay for those positions, and it’s helped in recruiting in past years, Everett said. Now the pool is limited.
“It’s the magnitude of this issue,” Everett said. “We are looking at 14 regular full-time subs. It’s the most we’ve ever had. We’re looking at (offering) financial enticements.”
Openings at other schools
Openings are not unique to Sterling Public Schools. Rock Falls High School Superintendent Ron McCord said his school needs substitute teachers and the athletics department has been taxed trying to schedule game officials for extracurricular events.
Dixon Public Schools has posted openings too: it has a blanket request for substitute teachers and substitute paraprofessionals as well as a full-time custodian position at Reagan Middle School, a social worker at Jefferson School, a special education teacher at Reagan Middle and a part-time computer technician.
Everett said that another factor has thinned staff at Sterling Public Schools.
Close contacts connected to the quarantine of elementary students – those too young to get the vaccine – have, in some cases, also hit home.
“So many of our staff members, their own children attend our schools,” Everett said. “So, if your elementary student gets quarantined, that pulls a staff member away from us.”
In the meantime, Everett puts the priority at classroom instruction. The administration is looking at contingency plans.
A fall surge?
“We keep reading about a fall surge,” Everett said. “We had data that supported it a year ago, that Thanksgiving and Christmas had impacts on us.”
Some modifications in duties might be required, such as interventions, suspended programming and channeling staff into substitute roles.
“Our No. 1 goal is to keep school open for as many students as we can. That’s our big issue right now,” Everett said.
He said, however, he recognizes the available staff already are stretched thin.
Teachers keep board informed
Sterling High School social studies teacher Tyler Gaumer, as co-president of the Sterling Education Association, addressed the board out of what he called an obligation to share that it’s not a normal school year.
“This is my 17th year teaching,” Gaumer said. “Teaching with a mask is different. There’s a lot of things outside of our control. Our students are in different places.”
Darwin Nettleton, an English teacher who is co-president of the SEA, said the concern is professional.
“We’re starting to see gaps in learning,” Nettleton said. “Which then creates gaps in the teaching process. We’re trying to catch up, still trying to move along.”
One of the differences, he said, is that last year a teacher might be on remote instruction one day, in-person the next. Although teachers were learning to “Zoom on the fly,” expectations remained, often with guidelines that aren’t spelled out and thereby making the whole process more difficult.
“Leadership is doing everything they can,” Nettleton said. “Everybody is working hard. On the flip side, we can hear the stories. The teachers are tired. Nurses are tired.”
On that score, Everett agreed.
“What I was proud of, and continue to be, is how amazing our staff is. They are working more hours than they ever have before,” Everett said. Teaching a quarantine class online and then a class face-to-face, “It’s like having two classes. And it’s exhausting. And my heart goes out to them.”
Sprinting a marathon
If anything, late summer and fall usually are brisk parts of the school year that signify a return to school with a fresh routine. For the administration, it’s the stretch before planning for the next school year starts in November.
“That’s what makes me nervous for the upcoming winter and spring. We can’t sprint a marathon, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” Everett said. “That’s what I worry about now. The fatigue factor. Diminished immune systems. Working a lot of hours. We need that time to recharge our batteries.”