As Jan Stone stirred a large pot of grits with sausage for her six adopted children on Friday, she was juggling a little more than usual during the family’s predawn routine.
Not only was Stone trying to get them out the door for school with backpacks and full bellies, she was preparing to go to school herself – as a substitute teacher.
Amid the latest Omicron surge, Hays Consolidated Independent School District – just south of Austin, Texas – has been hanging on by a thread due to a teacher shortage, like so many districts across the country.
Most of the absences are due to Covid-related illness or needing to quarantine from exposure to the fast-spreading variant.
In early January, the district put out a desperate plea, asking parents to work as substitute teachers to fill the gaps among their staff and substitute teacher pool.
“I’m petrified and excited at the same time,” Stone told CNN, while packing lunches for her kids after they ate breakfast. While she’s had some experience substitute teaching, it’s been more than 15 years and a lot has changed in the classroom.
Still, for Stone, it’s a win-win. She can play a part in keeping the schools open while bringing in some additional income. But it wasn’t an entirely easy decision. With four adult children, six adopted children through the foster care system, and five grandchildren, Stone has a lot on her plate.
But the idea of returning to a 2020-like era of kids learning from home sounded like a nightmare for Stone and many other parents.
“Our children need consistency. And part of that consistency is coming to school and having the same schedule,” she said. “Although a substitute in the classroom may be a little inconsistent – because you could have me, you could have Mrs. Smith tomorrow, you could have Mrs. Jones the next day – they’re still in their regular classroom.”
‘Like putting a puzzle together’
The call-out from Hays CISD is one of many innovative ways schools have tried to stay open since the Omicron variant swept through the country at breakneck speed during the holidays. Hays CISD, for example, typically needed 180 substitute teachers a day in pre-pandemic times, and they usually had an 80%-85% fill rate.
On January 18 – their peak day of staff shortages – they needed 455 substitute teachers and only had a 40% fill rate. The school system has 3,618 total staff.
The schools have managed to stay open, largely thanks to front office staff, librarians and school administrators stepping in to cover classrooms. They’ve also combined classes so that one teacher is juggling twice the number of students.
The attendance rate among students has dropped to 85% from about 95%, which has helped in consolidating classes but is still a huge concern among educators.
“It’s been difficult,” said Superintendent Eric Wright. “It’s basically been all-hands-on deck. It’s kind of been like putting a puzzle together.”
In his conversations with students, though, Wright said he repeatedly hears they prefer to be at school with substitutes rather than at home with remote learning.
“We’ve been able to keep our head above water,” he said. “I’m always just waiting for that call where they’ll tell me hey, we can’t make it work today. But fortunately, we just haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
So far, they’ve hired 40 additional substitute teachers since putting out a public plea for applications in early January, and about half of them are parents. The applicants go through the normal background check procedure and orientation.
State and local officials across the country are racing to keep schools open. In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order last week authorizing state employees to work as substitute teachers to help with the shortage. In Moore, Oklahoma, some school resource officers helped fill in last week.
And in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham launched a statewide initiative encouraging state employees, as well as National Guard members, to sign up to be substitute teachers. Lujan Grisham also volunteered, herself, and expects to start filling in at some point this week.
In upstate New York, the West Genesee Central School District posted on Facebook asking young alumni to sign up as substitute teachers.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Brian McKinney remembers the intense stretch of time when his kids had to do remote learning at the start of the pandemic.
“It was very, very, very stressful,” he said. “I mean, it was tough.”
While his high schooler was largely self-sufficient at home, it was the opposite case with their first-grader, who required constant attention in such a new, challenging environment. So when he heard the school district was asking for more substitutes, it felt like the right thing to do to sign up, he said.
And as a history buff who runs a World War II-themed mini golf course and museum in Buda, Texas, it was a task that fell within his wheelhouse. He had already molded the educational lessons of his mini-golf course to fit Texas history books, and he has experience teaching history in the past.
“When you have kids in the district, you feel that, you know, you just want to help,” he said. He expects to start teaching sometime later this week.
With Covid cases starting to trend down in many parts of the country, Hays CISD is finally starting to see a declining number of students and staff needing to stay home.
On Monday, Hays CISD only needed 260 substitute teachers and had a 63% fill rate, way down from their need for 455 substitutes the week prior.
But until normalcy returns, parents like Jan Stone intend to do what they can, no matter how much their juggling at home. In a bit of a role reversal, two of Stone’s little boys walked her to the colorful, second grade classroom to drop her off on Friday for her first day of teaching.
She told them she loved them and instructed them to go to their own classes. She walked into her new classroom and introduced herself like a natural.
“Good morning, I am Mrs. Stone. I’m going to be your substitute today,” she said. ” We’re going to have a good day, and we’re going to learn a lot, right?”
CNN’s Paul P. Murphy, Holly Yan and Stella Chan contributed to this report.