Knox Schools Struggle for Subs in Pandemic

Sep 11, 2020

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The Knox County school district is scrambling to deepen its bench of substitutes to keep classes in person despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, Cedar Bluff Middle School became the first to switch to virtual schooling for lack of subs.

Two-thirds of Knox County public school students are attending school in person, with the rest learning online from home using school-issued laptops. Individual schools or grades that don’t meet benchmarks may be closed temporarily. The benchmarks are based mostly on the attendance of teachers, staff and students, as well as the availability of substitutes. 

Even before COVID-19, Knox County Schools had begun closing for flu with growing regularity in the last few years, often because there weren’t enough substitutes. This year, it’s expected to be worse. COVID-19 has led about 50 teachers to take an unpaid semester off, and left some substitutes unwilling to take jobs.

Kara Borum is a certified teacher who subbed at three schools until this year. “I have breathing and blood pressure and heart problems, and if I could sub virtually where I wouldn’t come into contact with anybody, that would be an option,” she said. “But in person, I feel it’s very dangerous right now.”

The true number of subs available is unclear. Scott Bolton, human resources director for Knox County Schools, said last week that the district had surveyed its 1,317 substitutes. Only 68 indicated they wouldn’t work this semester, he said. (Some subs contacted for this story said they were never surveyed.) 

“Our sub pool’s pretty strong,” he said. He said the district’s record-keeping system didn’t allow him to provide a direct year-to-year comparison, but he added, “We’re not down subs.”

However, this week the Knoxville News Sentinel quoted Superintendent Bob Thomas saying only around 480 subs are available -- about 770 fewer than Bolton indicated. On the district’s online dashboard of benchmarks for closing, ‘Substitute availability’ was the first metric to hit the red zone. 

“If they’re telling you that we’re OK, that we have a great (substitute) pool, we really don’t,” said Tanya Coats, president of the Knox County Education Association. It’s an advocacy and support organization whose members are teachers, including some substitutes. “You have over a thousand-plus substitute teachers, but they’re not willing to come in and help us.”

In the past, when elementary schools couldn’t find enough substitutes, they would sometimes combine classes for the day. Bolton said schools would be “less likely” to do that this year, because maintaining 6 feet of social distance slows the spread of COVID-19. 

“That would have been the default mechanism,” Bolton said. “But now we’re trying to use some additional staff to cover those classes,” such as instructional coaches, teacher aids and principals. 

In-person teachers who are quarantined because of COVID exposure can still teach from home if they feel well. But that won’t cut down on the number of subs needed, because someone will still have to supervise those students in the school.

Teachers who have virtual classes may also need to take sick days. It’s unclear how the district is handling remote teacher absences. Bolton wasn’t sure whether there would be a live substitute, or just pre-recorded videos and assignments. District officials said they would follow up with an answer to this question, but failed to do so over more than a week. 

Knox County Schools officials also did not respond to a question about whether recordings are being made of virtual students as they interact with classmates and teachers via a laptop camera.

Many more kids could become virtual students in the coming months if there aren’t enough substitutes. Coats said several dozen retired teachers have told her they hesitate to substitute this fall for several reasons, health concerns being most obvious. 

“You have subs trying to make a decision: Do I want to go into a classroom going face to face with kids that is not social-distanced, or do I want to jeopardize my health or my family’s well-being to help the system out?” Coats said. 

Jane Skinner is a retired Farragut High School teacher who subs there. “I’m playing it by ear,” she said. “I’m waiting to see what happens with the numbers. I think we were all a little concerned about school starting back up with the sudden rise of the COVID numbers in Knox County. And it looks like they’re sort of leveling off now and coming down, but we’re waiting to see how starting up school impacts that.” Health concerns are the only barrier for her. 

Some other subs are not comfortable with the online learning platforms, Coats said. While substitutes are offered optional training opportunities, they have not been required to learn Canvas or Microsoft Teams, programs which are the basis of virtual instruction in Knox schools. Canvas is now being used by everyone, including elementary students who attend school in person.

Coats said potential subs also fear COVID will force them to become the social police, responsible for keeping kids from getting too close to each other. 

To recruit more subs, the district is offering a bonus to those who work more days a month: $300 for 10 or more days, and $500 for 15 days. 

Kara Borum says the bonus isn’t a meaningful incentive for her as long as subs don’t get health insurance. “My job could not only make me ill, but potentially cost me money because I wouldn’t have a way to pay my medical bills,” she said. 

Knox County is also trying to hire 25 teachers to work full time as subs wherever they are needed. There haven’t been many takers, according to Coats and district officials. 

The sub pool may seem large, but many subs will only accept jobs at a few specific schools. Rural and low-income urban schools struggle to get enough subs during normal years. School-by-school COVID closures could create more inequity, Coats noted: Schools in poor areas may have to close for lack of teachers, while schools in more affluent areas attract enough subs to keep the doors open.

Closures already had a huge effect on families when Knox schools shut down after spring break. There were no virtual classes because many students didn’t have laptops. Parent Lisa Bostic, the only breadwinner for her family, gave up two or three weeks of pay from her convenience store job to look after her three kids, who now attend Belle Morris Elementary and Whittle Springs Middle School. During the spring she juggled between taking fewer shifts, bringing her youngest kids to work, and leaving them supervised by the 12-year-old.

Bostic was so relieved when the district announced schools would reopen. “I was like, ‘Yes! My kids can be at school and have adult supervision, and I can go to work and be at peace.’”

She said she doesn’t know how she’ll support the family if her kindergartener, second-grader and seventh-grader flip to virtual classes from home. The uncertainty about when this could happen is nerve-racking.  

“It’s been worrying me for a while,” Bostic said. “Being a single parent is already hard. Their dad is in a nursing home…. I have to work, because if I don’t work, who’s going to take care of my kids? Or myself, or my husband? So if they do away with school, it’s going to put me back in a bind to where I can’t work the hours I need to work.” Bostic fears she may be forced to move back to her hometown of Nashville for the family support. 

Many teachers tell Coats they don’t expect school to last another month in person. She’s more optimistic -- unless flu season starts soon.

“They’re butting up against an epidemic and a pandemic,” Coats said. “It could get so far out of control, if we don’t have the bodies to replace those that are teaching, there will be no choice but to shut the system down.”