Substitute needs more than double as Salem-Keizer struggles to fill teacher, bus driver absences

A kindergarten student arrives by bus at Richmond Elementary. Driver and educator shortages are making operating local schools a daily challenge. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Local schools are short hundreds of teachers and classroom assistants daily, with educators forgoing training, preparation time and administrative tasks just to keep classes running in-person.

Christy Perry, superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District, painted a dire picture of staffing shortages and absences during a school board work session Tuesday night. She said even with the all-hands-on-deck approach the district has taken in recent weeks, getting students to school on time and teaching them once they’re there remains a daily crisis.

“Our outcome every day is multiple classrooms that don’t have a teacher,” Perry told the board.

She said the district is doing everything possible to maintain classes in-person and expects to be able to keep schools open, even as others around Oregon have temporarily shifted classes online due to a shortage of available educators. Salem-Keizer is Oregon’s second-largest school district, with about 40,000 students.

Teacher absences have soared since students returned from winter break the first week of January due to increased rates of illness and quarantine among people sickened by or exposed to Covid.

Perry said the number of substitutes needed the first two weeks of January is more than double the monthly total for any other month this school year.

The share of absences covered by substitute teachers was already low before winter break compared to pre-pandemic school years, but has fallen to 58% so far this month.

That means daily between 75 and 130 teachers are out and don’t have a substitute. 

Principals, school counselors, teacher mentors and other school employees with teaching licenses are filling in, as are district administrators.

Shortages of classroom assistants and other classified employees have been worse, with just 19% of absences covered by a substitute during the first two weeks of January.

The student services department, which coordinates programs for students with disabilities, has clerical employees filling in for assistants.

And the district’s preschool program closed Jan. 21 and 25 because of employee shortages.

Perry said when she has time available during the school day, she looks at her to-do list and asks herself whether the tasks on it are more important than showing up at one of the district’s 65 schools and asking the principal how she can help them get through the day. 

She and other administrators have been regularly helping out in schools this month, covering for educators out sick.

But Perry said only 30 to 40 people in district-level positions are able to cover classes.

“Every place in the organization where people are doing that, there’s other parts of their job that aren’t getting done,” she said.

Among the effects, new teachers who began their careers during the pandemic are getting less time with mentors, experienced teachers who serve as a sounding board.

Perry canceled classes districtwide Jan. 14, saying she hoped the extra day would give employees and students out sick time to recover, and educators a chance to catch up on work.

District leaders have also canceled classes Feb. 18 and May 20, both Fridays, to help educators catch up on work going undone while they’re substituting for teachers who are out.

“Every educator in the system, because of the week we’ve had, is especially fatigued,” Perry told the board.

School bus routes have been another pain point for district leaders. Driver shortages were an issue for years before the pandemic. But a higher rate of illness among existing drivers has exacerbated the issue.

Transportation administrators on Jan. 11 consolidated 65 school bus routes at 25 schools so fewer drivers were needed to complete them.

Those consolidations are supposed to last through Feb. 18, but may be extended longer if needed. Perry said district leaders would make a decision by Feb. 11.

That still hasn’t been enough to keep bus routes reliably staffed, Perry said. The transportation department daily has at least 20 drivers out and 21 bus routes don’t have a driver assigned to them.

To get students to school, bus mechanics, dispatchers, supervisors and trainers are out driving daily. Perry said often there’s just one employee left in the dispatch center because everyone else is filling in on a bus route.

“The people that are working on that are losing sleep at night,” Perry said, her voice shaking with emotion. “They know their core mission is to get kids to school, and they feel failure every day because it just isn’t a way to do it as reliably as they want to.”

Perry said she’s asked school principals to consider bringing in a small number of reliable volunteers who can work the same day each week and help out in classrooms. State rules require anyone volunteering in a school be fully vaccinated against Covid.

Interested volunteers can apply on the district website and contact their local school once approved.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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