Substitute teacher Bernadette Martens-Saxelby says filling in on campus in the age of COVID-19 means she has to be in multiple places at once. She is engaging with students on multiple platforms and in several places throughout the day.
On Wednesday, she sat in the back of a classroom on the second floor of Lake Travis High School, ready to engage with students in person and online.
As more students return to classrooms in the coming days and some teachers raise concerns about coming back amid the coronavirus pandemic, school districts in the Austin area will be calling on substitute teachers to fill the gaps and take on new roles.
At Lake Travis High, Martens-Saxelby said her day included teaching a junior level English class; monitoring students tuned in for the campus’ genius hour, when students receive extra instructional support; and supporting students who were tuned in online for another class while the classroom teacher was instructing other students.
Martens-Saxelby said that within the past week she has helped proctor an exam; taught English, math, science and world geography; and monitored classrooms throughout the campus.
"We are always jumping around because there are not enough subs to cover the whole campus," she said. "It can be challenging because I have to be in multiple places at once, but we are making it work with smiles on our faces."
Nearly a month into the new school year, area districts continue to search for substitute teachers who can work on campus and remotely.
Substitutes will have three new roles at Lake Travis schools this year, said Evalene Murphy, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.
The district has moved toward hiring annual subs, who will report to an assigned campus each day ready to fill a vacancy. If the sub is not needed on that campus that day, Murphy said, he or she could be asked to fill in at another campus.
She said the goal is to employ 25 people — two on each campus, with three extra at the high school — for those positions. The district has 13 filled so far, and all but two campuses have at least one substitute assigned.
Substitutes in the Lake Travis district have the option to work remotely or to serve as a facilitator to monitor and assist students who are on campus but learning from a teacher online.
"This is such a delicate balance," Murphy said. "We want to wholeheartedly protect our staff, but at the secondary level it is so much more difficult. We will depend on some of our subs for this, but we have done some reassigning of staff as well, and had a few volunteers to help facilitate a class so that we are able to accommodate as many teachers who requested remote as possible."
The Austin district will have a similar concept. Substitutes will be teaching virtually or in a face-to-face setting and in some cases both throughout the day. Fernando Medina, the district’s chief human capital officer, said they also will monitor students in classrooms when teachers are working remotely.
"We do have a group of students participating in online instruction, and we will need someone to facilitate and monitor in the classroom," Medina said. "It really is all about supporting learning and instruction."
Leander, Round Rock, Pflugerville and Eanes school district officials said their substitutes will be focused mainly in the classroom but will fill in for multiple positions throughout the campus and can expect to be in a remote setting sometimes.
Learning a new platform
Kim Roy, a longtime substitute teacher in Lake Travis schools, said being able to teach remotely this semester was a necessity for her.
She said she is not quite ready to return to the classroom, citing fears of the lingering coronavirus pandemic, but said if she can serve the district in a virtual capacity, she plans to do so, even if it means additional training.
School districts are training returning and new substitute teachers to use online platforms, including video conferencing applications and learning management systems.
John West, the Leander schools’ senior director of support services staffing and employee relations, said the district is offering a virtual teaching academy that has been expanded to include substitutes. He said the district began training in July, anticipating the need for substitute teachers in a virtual setting, and continues to do so as it draws interest for substitute teaching positions.
"Whether in the classroom, a virtual setting or hybrid environment, this is a benefit for all of us," West said. "Even though we made a decision to focus on in-person assignments for subs, it's professional development for us and something that will improve sub teaching in the future."
Murphy and Medina said Lake Travis and Austin schools are also offering remote learning training and resources so substitute teachers can easily slide into any classroom and feel comfortable.
"Flexibility and being agile is going to be the key in everything that we do in this context," Medina said. "We want our subs to feel welcomed and safe, and that they feel a sense of self-efficacy and are ready to take on a new environment. We have really expanded our training tools and resources so we can ensure we are preparing subs."
Eanes, Round Rock and Pflugerville schools are also offering training sessions to help provide substitutes with the tools needed to succeed, officials said, including information on virtual instruction, personnel policies, and safety protocols and procedures related to COVID-19.
Safety for all
Matens-Saxelby said that after visiting a few schools and traveling throughout Lake Travis campuses in the past few weeks, she feels the district has done its job in keeping everyone safe.
School districts have implemented safety protocols on campuses and facilities to help prevent the spread of the virus. Substitute teachers, like other district staffers and students, are expected to follow those same procedures, including wearing facial coverings, sitting students as far apart as possible, self screening for symptoms and frequently wiping down desks and high-traffic areas such as doorknobs.
Some districts, including Round Rock, Lake Travis, Pflugerville, Leander and Austin, have implemented permanent roles for substitute teachers on campuses, which helps limit exposure, officials said.
"We are doing our best to limit (substitutes) from going from campus to campus regularly," said Annetter Vierra, executive director of human resource services for the Round Rock district. "Of course, we have the same safety protocols in place for everyone, no matter where they go. But we are doing our best not to do that."
However, because the district cannot know when a teacher will be out, she said, it is still calling in substitutes as needed.
"We are trying to limit the numbers of subs we are calling in daily and rotating on campuses, but it won’t be perfect," she said.
Deepening the pool
Even with safety protocols in place and with teaching options available, some substitutes have said they are hesitant to return. Area districts have reported seeing a decline in the pool of available substitute teachers this year, which in part could be due to the pandemic.
Rebecka Stucky, a former Westlake High School teacher and now a substitute for Eanes, said that has become particularly true for those subs who are in the at-risk age group and might be asked to go to campus. Most said they plan to wait until as late as the spring semester before returning to substitute teaching jobs, hoping that the spread of the virus will have declined.
School officials said many substitute teachers also have children learning from home, limiting their ability to work.
But the decline might be because the need for substitutes on campus has traditionally been driven by events such as districtwide professional learning and popular citywide events such as the Austin City Limits Musical Festival, which have been canceled due to the virus.
Still, area districts continue to recruit new substitutes daily, offering ranges of daily rates and training. Many districts have relaxed some of their requirements and qualifications for substitutes to help open up the application pool.
Martens-Saxelby said with so few subs available, a typical school day is more complicated, but with more help that could change things for everyone.
"It is hard, but there is lots of support from other teachers," she said. "I never feel like I'm alone in this."