One day in early December, Ephrata High School math teacher Kris Miller took a rather peculiar approach in class.

He had his students read an article from a recent edition of Scholastic News. “Could You Clone Your Pet?” the headline read.

Miller then went around the room and asked students to share their pets’ names and decide whether they’d consider cloning them. After all, who doesn’t want their pet to live forever?

“Charice? No,” Miller said, uncharacteristically fumbling on the student’s name.

“Charis,” the student said, correcting him.

“Charis. Darn it,” Miller said.

“I used to have, um, three cats, but now I only have two because one of them died,” Charis said.

“Oh, that’s sad,” Miller said. “Did you ever think about cloning your cat?”

“No,” Charis said.

It’s not every day Miller has such a discussion with his students. That’s because, on this day, Miller wasn’t teaching math. He was teaching fourth-grade at Highland Elementary School.

Ephrata Teacher

Ephrata High School math teacher and football coach Kris Miller works with a student as he fills in for a fourth grade teacher at Highland Elementary School Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020.

It was part of a temporary volunteer initiative at Ephrata Area School District to recruit high school teachers to fill empty classrooms at the elementary and middle school level. The district was facing a higher amount of teacher quarantines due to holiday gatherings and out-of-state travel.

While teacher quarantines and staff shortages were of heightened concern around the holidays, it’s been a nagging issue for all Lancaster County school districts this pandemic-plagued school year as administrators think of every possible way to keep school buildings open.

Quarantined teachers are remote teaching from home. They’re using prep periods to fill in for absent colleagues. In some districts, schools are merging classes together, abandoning social distance protocols put in place to keep students and educators safe.

Compounding that is the shrinking pool of available substitute teachers — an existing problem that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic.

When all else fails, a school is forced to suspend in-person instruction.

‘It can burn staff out’

One of the latest victims: Wheatland Middle School in the School District of Lancaster.

Students there have learned remotely since Feb. 11, when more than 20% of the school’s staff was absent. District spokesman Adam Aurand wouldn’t share exactly how many teachers were out — because teacher quarantines change all the time, he said — but a certain amount of teachers were quarantined due to one case of COVID-19. Wheatland has 75 full-time staff, 20% of which would be 15.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were five COVID-19 cases among students and employees at Wheatland, but none actively impacting staffing. Students were expected to return to in-person learning today; however, a districtwide flexible instructional day was implemented because of the snow forecast. 

School District of Lancaster, the largest county school district with about 11,000 students, is less than a month into having all grades back for in-person learning, but staffing has already proven to be a problem.

When quarantined teachers are able to work from home, they do, Aurand said. But an adult still needs to physically be present in the classroom. Other teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, even district office-level staff have filled in for teachers when substitutes aren’t immediately available.

“It can burn staff out,” Aurand said, “because they don’t have the prep time they’re used to having. But it’s sort of an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

To attract more substitutes, Lancaster recently upped its pay rate to $135 per day for daily substitutes and $175 per day for long-term substitutes.

“It’s a concern,” Aurand said of substitute teacher availability. “If we’re asking them to provide 20% of staff, that’s a significant ask of them.”

Aurand is talking about the Substitute Teacher Service, which hires and assigns substitute teachers for all but two Lancaster County school districts.

Shrinking substitute pool

The pool of available substitute teachers has dipped significantly since last school year, according to JR Godwin, vice president of business affairs for STS.

From Aug. 1, 2020, to Jan. 31, there were 1,067 substitutes available — 546, or 34%, less than the same period last school year, STS data shows. Jobs filled during those same periods have also dropped 34% — from 31,742 to 21,051 — this year; however, School District of Lancaster’s long stretch of remote learning at the beginning of the school year undoubtedly had an impact. STS has been able to fill 80% of jobs, compared to 89% last school year, also during the same time period.

“Overall, it’s a very difficult school year,” Godwin said, adding, in some cases, “it’s trying to find an army of people to take over” at schools with a significant number of quarantined teachers.

Making matters worse, many substitutes don’t want to risk their health by entering a school building, and others are unavailable because they have kids at home learning remotely, he said.

“Some people may back away from it,” Godwin said. “But we are actively hiring.”

Taking extreme measures

Eastern Lancaster County Superintendent Bob Hollister said schools there are short-staffed every day. To preserve continuity of learning for students attending in-person, officials there “have done everything possible to keep the doors open,” Hollister said.

In emergencies, that involves reluctantly going against pandemic protocols.

“We’ve had to combine classes here internally, which is not good, because it violates our cohorting principles,” he said. “… It’s a big problem, and it’s a big problem for everybody.”

At Ephrata, Superintendent Brian Troop said it’s also been a daily challenge for principals to adjust schedules and assign staff to classrooms. With more reasons for teachers to be out, less substitutes available and fewer solutions available because of social distancing, “It’s really like a perfect storm,” he said.

Of teachers, he said, “The flexibility and adaptability has been called to test this year, and they’ve just been doing an outstanding job in doing what needs to get done every day.”

‘No! I can’t do it!’

For Kerry Mulvihill, a seventh-grade science teacher at Huesken Middle School in the Conestoga Valley School District, this school year has been the most challenging of her 23-year career.

Teachers are often going without prep periods, even bathroom breaks, because they’re needed in somebody else’s classroom. When teachers see another one of their colleagues is quarantined for two weeks, there’s a collective groan.

“When you see it’s happening, you’re like, ‘No! I can’t do it!’” Mulvihill said.

Mulvihill, who’s also the vice president of the Conestoga Valley Education Association, said a hybrid model with fewer students in school at one time could’ve prevented at least some of the pandemic’s impact on schools.

“I really think that they’ve stretched the teachers pretty thin here,” she said. “And we, of course, thought hybrid was the best option to keep the numbers lower. I still think that.”

Getting teachers vaccinated, she said, should also be a priority.

Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski declined to comment.

Conestoga Valley delays start of school, keeps full-time, in-person instruction despite teacher protest

Of course, teachers supporting one another has its positives. In Miller’s case, for example, lending a helping hand at Ephrata school district’s Highland Elementary was his way of showing his appreciation for his colleagues and boosting morale, he said. It was also an eye-opening experience to the challenges of substitute teaching, he said.

On the day he covered in the fourth-grade classroom, he let students take a break during which they could use the bathroom, eat a snack and take their masks off for a couple minutes.

“Are we going to have a substitute tomorrow?” one of the students asked during the break.

“I don't know, but if you do, it’ll probably be me,” Miller said, pausing. “If that's OK.”

Another student gave him a thumbs up.

And the next day, he was back.

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