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'It's really putting a lot of pressure on some teachers' | Staffing concerns rise as COVID surges in schools

Some districts are implementing incentives to retain and recruit more teachers, substitutes and school bus drivers, crediting the pandemic for this shortage.

ATLANTA — While schools deal with surging COVID-19 cases, many districts also face a shortage of permanent staff, substitutes, and bus drivers.

11Alive interviewed two teachers seeing this first-hand in their classrooms. Both are still teaching in person and have had COVID-19. 

Nick Hodge is an English teacher at a rural public high school in Georgia with about 480 students. He says his district has a hard time finding substitute teachers.

"A lot of times, you know, they've got teachers who, during their planning period, they might have to look over a class. They have several retired teachers who will come in and fill in, so it's much more difficult than it generally is to fill our substitutes," he said.

It's a similar story in Jennifer Bartlett's smaller, private school in the metro Atlanta area. She teaches middle and high school math.

"I know that some teachers are really saying that they're at the end of their rope with the amount of extra work that's being created because of other teachers' absences, which, you know, they have to be out," she said. "It's really putting a lot of pressure on some teachers."

Not only is this being seen in the classroom, but teachers are feeling the aftermath of bus driver shortages.

"In the county that I live in, we're 70 bus drivers short, and so some of the bus drivers are having to do two routes," Bartlett said. Well, guess who stays with those students after school for an hour later than their contract hours just to be with those students?"

Staff shortages are becoming more critical as the number of COVID-19 cases in schools continues to climb.

RELATED: Forsyth County Schools implements bus driver pay increase amid nationwide shortage

On Monday, Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey said cases in children age 11 to 17 have quadrupled over the last few weeks.

"We've seen the highest number of weekly outbreaks since the pandemic began, with more than half of these outbreaks in K-12 schools," she said.

How exactly is that provable?

11Alive reached out to the Department of Public Health for their answer:

"Because every county in the state is experiencing high transmission of COVID, it is not possible to know precisely how or where someone was infected. If a child becomes infected with COVID and the only place that child was around someone with COVID is at school (meaning no one in the family or at home is infected), it is likely that’s where they were infected. But, it is also possible that child was infected by someone at a grocery store (as an example), but it’s not the most likely scenario if there are infections in schoolmates or teachers."

Hodge and his wife had COVID-19 three weeks ago, and they believe it came from one of the schools they teach in. They both received the COVID-19 vaccine once it was made available to educators.

"Several of my students had tested positive, so I could have caught it from one of them. I don't do this because of money. I believe in trying to leave the world a little better than you found it," Hodge said.

He credits the vaccine for him still being here today.

"I'm very thankful; we're both very glad that we had the vaccine," he said. "We both have complicating issues. She and I are both a little overweight. She has diabetes, I only have one kidney. We were both very concerned about that."

Bartlett's school, which has a little over 100 students, allows for social distancing. She believes that's likely why there have been no COVID-19 cases in her school this year.

“It is pretty nice for us, but I know that there are many, many teachers in public school who have retired early or who have left the profession because they're scared. And I don't blame them," she said.

Bartlett had COVID-19 last school year, but she believes it came from her granddaughter's public school, given the low number of cases in her building last school year.

"There have been no positive cases [this school year]. For teachers at my school last year, two teachers, including myself, and then two students, but they were spaced out over the year," she said. "We're certain that they were not contracted at school. So, we've been very blessed."

11Alive reached out to several school districts about the staff shortages.

Fulton County Schools is one of many districts facing shortages among teachers and bus drivers:

"As most districts in the metro area and across the country, FCS is facing a competitive market for talent, and that extends to substitute teachers and bus drivers.

The substitute teacher challenge is a national one that is significantly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on schools. The challenge still exists for FCS because COVID-19 remains a significant crisis that is causing teachers/staff to be quarantined for COVID-19 related reasons and a reluctance in substitutes accepting an assignment out of concern for their health. 

To ensure FCS continues to have a viable pool of quality substitutes, the district announced in May of 2021 it will keep the substitute rate incentive implemented last year effective through May 30, 2022. We hope the incentive will help and encourage more substitutes to accept assignments, but we do not expect it to fully enable us to overcome the significant impact caused by COVID-19. 

FCS has about 800 bus driver positions with 35-40 vacant driver positions. The competitiveness for K-12 personnel in the Atlanta Metro area is an ongoing factor that we must consider in our recruitment efforts. FCS has a very competitive starting bus driver pay of $20.40 per hour, a full benefits package, and paid training."

Bartlett agrees it's important to compensate teachers for the extra time and effort, especially during a pandemic.

"Being pulled from your planning to cover another teacher's class, and not being compensated for it, in some cases, is really hard. It really affects the teacher's everyday life," she said.

"I know that it is a dangerous situation. I don't have a choice. At the end of the day, the truth is, I'm not a wealthy person. I have to pay my bills," added Hodge.

All job listings for Fulton County Schools can be found here.

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