Kodiak Island Borough School District has been making some headway with its staffing shortage, but it still has openings in many areas, according to a report that Assistant Superintendent Geoff Smith presented to the Board of Education earlier this week.
Four teachers are currently in the hiring process as they move from substitute status to certificates. Vacancies remain in two other spots, including an elementary school physical education teacher and an English as a Second Language instructor.
The number of vacant teacher positions is down from seven in August, and the PE teacher position is being filled by a long-term substitute.
Even the four teachers being hired face some small challenges, due to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
“The four teachers in the hiring process are currently working in the classroom on a substitute basis, so they are taking every 19th day off until they get certified,” Smith said. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern at that point.”
State education policy stipulates that substitute teachers can’t teach for more than 19 consecutive days without getting full-time teacher credentials.
Classified positions, such as custodians, maintenance workers and classroom aides, continue to fluctuate. Smith reported that 17 have been filled and another six are going through the hiring process.
Another 13 classified positions remain vacant, including five classroom aides, two custodians, a cafeteria position and two maintenance spots, as well as a substitute teacher facilitator.
“What’s happened is that we’ve hired folks and had resignations, hired folks and had resignations,” Smith said.
Positions funded with federal COVID relief program money are being advertised, but the difficulty remains in trying to fill them.
The district’s biggest concern: a depleted pool of substitute teachers.
Substitutes fill the void in case teachers or classroom aides fall ill, have family emergencies or are otherwise unable to work. With COVID a concern, some teachers who are considered close contacts or test positive have to self-isolate. Depending on their vaccination status, it means a teacher remains out of the classroom for between seven to 10 days.
The district met Monday with seven potential substitutes and filled six. Another 11 go unfilled between teachers and staff.
“It is a challenge we face on a day-to-day basis, so we’re back out to advertising for those positions,” Smith said. “We’re letting the community know we are hiring and need people in the building. That is one of the things that will become a challenge as the year progresses.”
He said the district’s recruitment effort netted them over 50 new people for the 2021-2022 school year, including 40 teachers. Unfortunately, he said, it depleted its substitute pool.
“A lot of our reliable substitutes we had from last year are people we hired this year as teachers,” he said. “It’s trying to replace those individuals that are in our system because they started as substitutes that enjoyed what they were doing.”
During an interview Tuesday with Kodiak Daily Mirror, Smith said the district currently has between 20 and 25 substitute teachers in its pool.
“Some of those individuals aren’t available to work until mid-October or November, which decreases the number of substitutes that are available on any given day,” Smith said. “We don’t have new applicants to replenish the pool itself.”
According to Natasha Kutchick, a district administrative aide and the acting substitute facilitator, the district used to have 70 substitutes for classified or teacher spots available day-to-day three or four years ago.
“Substitutes are a key component to the district’s ability to offer services and programs to students,” Smith said. “If we don’t have enough to fill vacancies you have to pull other staff. Right now you have building principals in the classroom, which means they are not doing their other duties, or we have paraprofessionals teaching and not doing the roles they were hired to do.”
Smith said there is no one explanation for the decrease in substitutes, and he couldn’t attribute it to the pandemic by itself.
“I think it’s really come to a head this year,” Smith said.
At Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Larry LeDoux said some elementary schools have filled gaps on a temporary basis by using classroom aides and occasionally a principal. But the district needs a strong corps of substitute teachers.
“It’s important because if we don’t have enough subs to fill our positions, we’ll have to close and go remote,” LeDoux said. “It’s a big issue because our reserves are already very low.”
LeDoux added that the lack of substitutes has impacted teacher training.
“We’ve had to cancel some of our staff learning opportunities to bring teachers together for a day because we don’t have the subs to fill in,” LeDoux said.
Smith, during Tuesday’s interview, said substitutes enjoy a flexibility in assignments.
“For the people we are looking for, if they are interested in only substituting in one school or at a certain grade level, we’re interested,” Smith said. “There is no door closed. We have a need for substitutes on any given day.”
The district’s application and hiring process requires potential substitutes to have either a GED or high school diploma, go through a background and reference check, a seven-hour online substitute training course and an orientation with the substitute facilitator. The requirements are the same for either substitute teachers or classified staff.
Kutchick, the district’s acting substitute facilitator, said substitute teaching was how she started at the district.
“My children were attending North Star Elementary, and I was there every day volunteering when one of the teachers said I should become a substitute,” Kutchick said. “I did that for a couple of years. … At first I thought there was no way I could be a sub, and once I did it a couple of times it was OK.”
The district will launch renewed recruitment efforts for substitutes through newspaper and radio ads, on social media and in school newsletters and sending flyers home with children.
“If a family member ever wanted to be involved, this is a great way to work in their child’s school as a substitute in as limited a fashion as your schedule allows,” he said.
BUS DRIVERS IMPACTED
LeDoux said even bus drivers have become a concern as its contractor First Student suffers from a shortage statewide.
“In order to be a bus driver you have to have a commercial driver’s licence and go through First Student’s training,” LeDoux said. “The bus company has flown in drivers from out of town to help.”
LeDoux said with preschool starting on Sept. 21 things may become more complicated.
“At this point they are already two drivers short,” LeDoux said. He added Kodiak isn’t alone in a bus route shortage.
Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, Anchorage School District and Mat-Su Borough School District all have had to shut down bus routes due to driver shortages.
LeDoux said the district is working with Jerry Clark, First Student’s Kodiak location manager, in trying to find a solution.
“Once we have a better idea of things, we may have to announce some routes will be closed down or some things will have to change,” LeDoux said. “It is clear to say that we have no reserves, so if we had an outbreak among the drivers we may have to shut down a lot of routes.”
He cautioned that some scenarios could result in the temporary suspension of transporting students to Main Elementary on buses that are on their way to North Star Elementary. Normally a walk-up school, the school district recently added a bus route for Main, but LeDoux said it maye be one of the routes that may be suspended.
“We don’t want to pack our buses to the point where we have a COVID problem on our buses,” LeDoux said.
He cautioned that a scenario like a COVID outbreak among drivers could occur overnight.
“Parents need to be prepared for an email or phone call saying they are going to have to pick up or transport their kids,” LeDoux said. “We are doing everything we can and are thankful to be working with Jerry and First Student to meet our needs.”