The Central Bucks School District, which closed schools on Monday because of staffing shortages, is scrambling to find substitute teachers.
The need is so great that the district — Pennsylvania’s third largest, with more than 17,000 students and more than 3,000 faculty and staff — is encouraging community members with bachelor’s degrees to apply for substitute and support staff positions.
“What caught us off guard yesterday [Monday] was not so much how many people were out, it was how many substitutes were unavailable,” said Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh.
The district had at least 230 staff absences on Monday, according to Lucabaugh, with a “fill rate” of 20% — compared to this time last year, when the fill rate was up to 70%.
“The anticipated staffing shortages with the omicron-related spike in COVID-19 cases have come to fruition,” Lucabaugh said in an email to parents. That, he said, has created “an unprecedented” need for substitute teachers “that far exceeds the number available.”
The district will put community applicants through an interview process, Lucabaugh said, and make sure all of them have an understanding of “classroom management” and “professionalism.”
“We never say as soon as you apply, you’re hired,” he said.
The district has also increased the daily substitute rate to $225 a day, is looking to recruit retired district teachers, and is advertising on social media and career sites.
“We are very confident that we can replenish our substitute teacher pool,” the superintendent said. “I’m very focused on recruiting high-quality substitutes.”
To fill the gaps, the district is also moving internal staff around.
A Tuesday, Jan. 4, email from a Central Bucks principal to faculty and staff obtained by WHYY News says the district administration created “3 levels of internal support to help fill absences of staff members over the next several weeks.” The three levels are categories of professionals in school buildings that will be used as substitute teachers.
The first level, “Level A,” are the usual fill-ins, like reading specialists and art teachers; “Level B” includes math coaches and curriculum supervisors; and the lowest level, “Level C,” includes building administrators and school psychologists.
Parents in the district are already applying to be emergency certified substitutes. Some are posting about their plans in Facebook groups that span the political spectrum, including one group called “CBSD Families Advocating For Kids First, A Full Reopening And Transparency,” and another called “CBSD Parents for Progress.”
Venture capitalist Paul Martino’s wife, Aarati Martino, is encouraging parents to apply for the positions on social media. Paul Martino poured money into dozens of Pennsylvania school board elections last year, backing candidates, mostly Republican, who supported in-person learning and were against most COVID-19 safety measures. The couple lives in the Central Bucks district.
Bill Senavaitis, president of the Central Bucks Education Association, said the need for substitute teachers in the district isn’t new.
“The need for day-to-day substitutes has existed for at least three or four years. It’s just becoming more and more acute,” Senavaitis said.
The current absences are a reflection of the state of COVID-19 spread, he said. “It’s impacting the entire community, and we are not immune, unfortunately.”
According to data tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 community transmission is high in Bucks County.
One high school teacher in Central Bucks, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the district, has noticed many classes being sent to either the cafeteria or auditorium because there weren’t any substitutes.
The teacher called out in early December and described their students’ experience as “hectic,” adding that isn’t “uncommon.”
“The students were wandering around the building because they were told to go back to the classroom. But then there was nobody in the classroom. The door was locked,” the teacher said. “And then they went to the cafeteria, and the cafeteria said to go to the auditorium. The auditorium said go back to the classroom. So they just spent a significant amount of time wandering around.”
On Tuesday, the teacher said, the school psychologist was called in to cover a class.
“As he was walking down the hall, he did not look too happy about it,” the teacher said. Over the last month, the teacher noted, the cafeteria or auditorium could have 90 to 150 kids at a time.
This week, the teacher noticed more students without masks. The district’s policy is “mask optional.”
The teacher’s wife is a cancer survivor and is immunocompromised. The teacher also has a health condition and is immunocompromised.
“I keep my Apple Watch on, and my blood pressure rises more when I’m in the building than when I’m out. … We’re all stressed to the max doing everything we can to survive.”
The teacher fears getting their wife sick. “I dread putting her at risk. It scares the hell out of me.” The teacher wants to be teaching in person, but wishes there were more COVID-19 mitigation efforts in place.
Heather Reynolds, who has two sons in the district, has signed up to be a substitute teacher. Because of her part-time job, she said Tuesday, she has spare time.
The sudden school closure on Monday felt “bizarre,” Reynolds said: Parents were told on Saturday by the district that schools would reopen on Monday, and then on Sunday evening they received another email from Superintendent Lucabaugh about school buildings closing.
“It just shows a top-down failure in leadership,” said Reynolds. “There’s no plan in place … They just don’t think ahead … Everything is reactive instead of being proactive.”
She said she wished the district could come to more of a compromise around COVID-19 safety policies.
Saturdays just got more interesting.