Librarians and administrators have been dispatched to campuses across Fort Worth ISD as stop-gap substitutes after nearly 2,000 teachers contracted COVID-19 in the first month of the new year and another 1,700 have come into contact with someone infected with the virus.
The rapid spread has overwhelmed campuses hoping to start the year with a focus on academics, and highlighted some long-standing downturns in the teaching profession.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Matthew Booth, a librarian and media specialist at Morningside Middle School “I don’t know what language to use to articulate the horror show we have been through.”
As teachers call out sick, students are moved around and split up in some cases, or kept in the same class with a rotating cast of student teachers, librarians and administrators, Booth and other campus staff told the Star-Telegram.
“Things are just very inconsistent and unstable,” said Tina Aguilar, who has a daughter at Oakhurst Elementary. “That’s nobody’s fault, but that’s just how it is right now for many.”
Classwork and assignments are not consistent amid the chaos, Aguilar said, but the kids remain resilient.
“I don’t think the kids realize it,” Aguilar added, noting that her daughter’s teachers were out for two weeks.
Fort Worth ISD mobilizes full administration to act as substitutes
The Fort Worth school district is not alone in dealing with an emerging staffing crisis amid another surge of coronavirus, which has closed all campuses at Lewisville ISD and continues to cause classrooms to close at districts across Texas.
“Lack of substitute coverage is a national issue that FWISD has been addressing since the beginning of the school year, and the situation is only heightened due to the most recent spike in COVID-19 cases,” school board president Tobi Jackson told the Star-Telegram. “We continue with our recruitment strategies for hiring and the FWISD Board recently approved increased substitute pay to attract qualified substitutes to best serve our students’ academic needs.”
But the massive size of Fort Worth ISD — with over 76,000 students and more than 11,000 teachers and other employees — has allowed the district to turn to staff it wouldn’t usually rely on during surges like this, district leaders said.
“Due to FWISD’s size, support staff have been disbursed systematically to campuses in need with immediacy,” Jackson said. “These experienced leaders provide excellent academic support to students on campuses. We are fortunate in this regard as smaller districts do not have access to the same number of trained personnel.”
Raúl Peña, the chief talent officer for the district, said that between 15 and 1,000 employees from the central office have been sent to campuses on any given day this month, with case numbers peaking around MLK Day.
The entire academic department has been utilized, along with other departments on an as-needed basis.
“I think campuses are finding ways to strategically take care of their classrooms,” Peña said.
But while the support from the administration is appreciated, in practice the solution is not seamless, campus-level staff say.
Administrators tapped in as substitutes with little notice
On the campus level, administrators could be called out as late as the morning of an absence, leaving them scrambling to find materials for students.
“It depends on if the teachers were able to leave lesson plans before they left,” said Miranda Quintero, a librarian at Sagamore Hill Elementary. “If they are really sick, then they’re not providing us with the lesson plans per se, but we’re working with other teachers on the team. We’ve been having to kind of come in and use the lesson plans that were already submitted the week before to try and piece together what is being taught.”
Teachers have also utilized Chromebooks that became common-place over the pandemic to assign things to kids, but with different teachers in the classroom every day, they struggle to maintain continuity.
“Every day that new teacher is trying to come in and decipher what was done the day before and get all the information together,” Quintero said. “And when the district personnel come, they go to their office first … so they don’t show up until 8:05-8:10 and we are trying to help them decipher.”
Peña said that the shortage of substitutes and the varying need from day-to-day can make instructional continuity a challenge.
“Unfortunately, during these times, it is more challenging to find consistent staff to cover one classroom,” he said.
Other administrators aren’t as proactive about deciphering lesson plans, however, according to Booth.
“There’s no learning happening,” he said of a recent class. taught by an admin. “You have people come from downtown from various departments and just sit in the classroom.”
But campuses are left with few options when too many teachers are out.
Students can lose access to libraries as staff are pulled to substitute
While administrators have been called out en masse to help with the recent shortage, librarians have been regularly subbing throughout the course of the pandemic, often adding to already expanding roles.
“I’ve substituted classes every day for a year and a half,” Booth said. “Which bothers me, because we’re not being compensated for that.”
Librarians across the district have been called on to oversee technology, as well as physical media in recent years as the district has moved to provide a device for every student.
“On top of that, we have to have to watch classes day after day after day after day, and not be compensated in the way that a classroom teacher would if they gave up their planning period,” Booth said.
Other librarians double as P.E. teachers or digital experts. The added pressure pushed at least one librarian to leave the district amid the mounting responsibilities.
In a farewell note to colleagues reviewed by the Star-Telegram, that librarian noted the double-duty, saying that they spent less than 10 days in the library over 1-1/2 years employed as a librarian, spending the rest of the time “babysitting.”
When libraries closed due to substituting duties, students lose access to resources at a pivotal time for recovering after more than a year of disrupted learning.
“I’ve only been pulled six times this year,” Mindy Selby, a librarian at Hubbard Heights Elementary, said. “But yes, the library is closed and whichever classes come that day just don’t have a library visit that week … as well as the information I am teaching.”
Peña said that the surge of administrative support was designed in part to allow campuses to keep librarians in their positions.
Fort Worth ISD will not close campuses due to staff shortages
Librarians and administrators point to the main goal, however, which is to keep classes open for students.
“FWISD’s intent is to continue providing this real-time, need-based support and keep our schools open to serve all children,” Jackson, the board president, said. “The FWISD Board is proud of (Superintendent) Scribner’s utilization of administrative personnel to serve in classrooms throughout the District during the substitute shortage. “
Peña pointed to a drop in COVID cases toward the end of the month and said that campus closures are not on the table at this time, adding that state funding restricts the ability of the district to transition to remote learning.
The Texas Education Agency, which enforces those rules, said in a statement Wednesday that the agency is “closely monitoring the current situation” with omicron and “exploring policies that will provide schools with additional assistance.”
Until the cases subside, Quintero, the Sagamore Hill librarian, said that the staffing shortages will continue to take a toll on parents, administrators and students alike.
“We’re just tired,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can, so hopefully parents can know that we are recognizing that they’re doing the best they can and do their best to recognize that we are trying.”