The Waco Independent School District is facing staff shortages, low attendance rates and poor grades among all students, as it prepares to reopen four campuses Monday that were closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Superintendent Susan Kincannon said during Thursday night’s board meeting that the district’s biggest challenge has been getting enough substitutes to cover classes when teachers must quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 or coming into contact with someone who tested positive.
“We do have a large sub pool with about 200 substitute teachers in it, but very few of those are consistently accepting jobs during this time,” Kincannon said. “If they do, they’re doing so at the elementary level primarily.”
Principals have been tasked with figuring out how to staff classrooms, sometimes using paraprofessional staff, or teacher aides, to cover for teachers who are absent for whatever reason. Administrative office staff have also stepped in for teachers at some campuses, Kincannon said.
Waco ISD has about 30 substitutes working each day on average, leaving between 40 and 60 vacant positions on any given day.
Pam Cooper, president of the Waco chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told the board Thursday night through a face mask that she has received numerous calls from staff expressing concern over the use of aides as substitutes. Aides do not make nearly as much money as teachers or even substitutes, and many are not certified teachers.
Substitutes can make up to $100 a day, if they are certified teachers, which many are, Cooper said. They also receive training on how to manage a classroom. Meanwhile, paraprofessional aides’ salaries start at $19,732, while teachers start at $49,100, according to Waco ISD’s job postings.
Cooper said if an aide is being used as a substitute, then they should be compensated with the same pay a substitute teacher would receive. Often, the aides are put in classrooms without enough materials or the training to operate the new online platforms the district is using for remote learners.
Additionally, some teachers are working until 10 p.m. some nights, helping families with homework or technology issues, trustee Stephanie Korteweg said. She and board Secretary Norman Manning both said they wanted to support teachers by having the district send a letter to families, asking them not to contact teachers after a certain time, but Kincannon said she would handle the issue.
“The emotional toll on the teachers is horrendous right now,” Cooper said.
She said she supports Korteweg’s and Manning’s idea to provide a cut-off time for families to contact teachers.
Waco ISD closed four campuses for a week on Oct. 8, after 25 people at the four schools tested positive for COVID-19 since school started. Waco High, University High, Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy and Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy campuses will reopen Monday for those who chose in-person instruction for the second six weeks. At least 34 people connected to those campuses have tested positive as of Friday.
Since the first day of school Sept. 8, at least 86 students, staff and others on Waco ISD campuses have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the district’s dashboard. In the past week, 12 more people connected to the district have tested positive. Some of those people were on more than one campus during the time they were potentially infectious, so the cumulative total does not match the sum of individual campus totals.
Cooper said the dashboard does not truly reflect the full extent of those in the district who have been affected by the coronavirus. G.W. Carver Middle School just reopened this week after a brief closure because so many staff members had to quarantine. No elementary campuses have closed, but whole classes have been sent home to quarantine at Crestview, Parkdale and Kendrick Elementary schools.
“Knowing these numbers is crucial for the planning and educating the Waco ISD students in the most effective and safe way,” she said.
About 2,000 more students have returned to campus for in-person instruction for the second six weeks, Kincannon said. The percentage of in-person students increased to 62%, up from 48% during the first six-weeks grading period.
Cooper said that increase in students on campus is what is causing more people to test positive for COVID-19 and more staff to quarantine because of potential exposure. Staff has become so limited at some campuses that teachers are having to eat in their classrooms or their cars, when they are supposed to have duty-free lunch by law. Additionally, some teachers are not getting their legally required 450 minutes of planning time allotted to them every two weeks.
“We all need to stay diligent and follow the safety guidelines because one loss due to negligence is not acceptable,” she said.
For the first six-weeks grading period, attendance for in-person students reached about 88%, while remote students logged on about 83% of the time, Kincannon said. Elementary schools have the highest attendance rates, while high schools averaged the lowest. About 81% of in-person students showed up for instruction at the high schools, and 76% of remote learners tuned in for instruction.
Grades are another concern for students since the state plans to hold districts accountable for meeting state academic standards this school year, unlike for the 2019-20 school year, Kincannon said. The district wants to see students improve regardless of state accountability ratings, she said.
About 8% of in-person elementary students failed the first grading period, Kincannon said. Some elementary campuses had up to 13% of remote learners fail one or more classes.
Failure rates at middle schools for in-person students were as high as 12.5% for some campuses and as high as 21% for remote learners, Kincannon said. High school failure rates were even higher, with failure rates for one or more courses up to 27% for in-person learners and as high as 42% for remote learners.
Some schools are contacting parents and asking them to bring their students back in person if they are struggling with remote instruction, but the district plans to continue to offer remote instruction, Kincannon said.