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NWA & River Valley schools struggle to fill teacher absences



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.– Under normal circumstances finding a substitute is always a challenge, but this pandemic is complicating the matter significantly.

Starting Friday, January 15, Fort Smith Public Schools will pivot to virtual learning until Tuesday, January 19, due to increased staff absences.

“As we know with COVID-19, quarantines come and go and sometimes we see higher levels of quarantines,” Christina Williams with Fort Smith Public Schools said.

Unlike back in November, students at Fort Smith Public Schools will have the option to come on-site if needed.

“Students that do come in, they will be doing their work online,” Williams said.

The district released the following statement on Thursday, January 14:

Staffing classrooms that need substitutes is a challenge under normal circumstances. The pandemic complicates matters significantly. FSPS active and close contact numbers are relatively steady – note on our COVID Updates page, and we generally cover 80 to 85% (sometimes more) of absences that require substitutes. The process is however taxing in that under normal circumstances, FSPS will see pockets of absences in a few schools. The pandemic and quarantining students and their teachers have guaranteed that many more schools will be involved at any given time.

In an area the size of Fort Smith, there is a finite number of substitutes who are able to work in classrooms during the pandemic. Late this past summer, FSPS increased the daily substitute rate to $95. The district also employs adults who are 18 years or older to substitute teach. All substitutes participate in district training and receive a clear background check before they begin to sub in FSPS classes. The FSPS Human Resources Department has hosted five substitute workshops in 2020-2021 with two additional planned. They have included the UAFS College of Education and the Babb Center in planning and recruiting as well as using social media and word of mouth to recruit additional substitutes.

The response has been good to these recent changes. The district has added 106 substitutes to its roster since August 2020. However, this does not relieve the total need. Assistant principals from other buildings and itinerant staff members often work alongside substitutes to provide supervision regardless of location. Teams of educators who do not work in classrooms every day are ready to assist any school at any time. FSPS has also reduced the out-of-building professional development requirements that could impact the district’s ability to staff classrooms because of illness or quarantine.

The pivot to online learning on January 15 and 19 allows teachers, principals, and their parents an opportunity to regroup and catch up. Students will be using their school’s learning management system (LMS) to complete their assignments. This will allow teachers to teach in one platform for a couple of days and not have to manage in-person for students on-site as well as online for those who may be absent because of quarantine. Other features of this pivot include flexibility for parents to choose to bring their children to school if they need to do so. Substitute teachers, who are already scheduled in the buildings, will be able to provide the necessary supervision for groups of online learners. Additionally, building leaders have the autonomy to manage these two days in ways that best fit the number of students who attend on-site learning on these days