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Staff shortages push valley districts to prepare backup plans

Ongoing staff shortages at schools throughout the Coachella Valley are being magnified by the latest surge of COVID-19 cases. Officials with all 3 districts spoke with News Channel 3 about the extent of staff shortages each is experiencing, along with the impacts, and steps being taken to address the situation. 

Dr. Joe Hyde, Assistant Superintendent of Personnel Services for Desert Sands Unified School District, said “schools are experiencing staffing shortages across the board." He added, "today for instance there’s 228 teacher absences, and that’s about 19% of our total classroom teaching staff.” However, Hyde said most of the absences are "related to substitute teacher and classified substitute shortages.” He said substitute staff shortages have been an issue for the past 4 or 5 years, "but it's never been to this level of intensity."

He added that they “have grown dramatically” since classes resumed from the winter break due to the Omicron variant. An executive order singed by Governor Newsom meant to offer support to schools dealing with staff shortages “will offer some relief,” said Hyde.

The order extends an existing waiver that essentially eliminates a waiting period that recently retired educators have to wait before they can substitute teach. However, the process to apply to become a substitute teacher still requires a certain amount of time, said Hyde.

The order also includes a new provision that will allow individuals with a Master’s degree to immediately apply to substitute positions. "We're still analyzing it, and unpacking it to make sure that what we think it says is what it does say," said Hyde.

Hyde noted the district is coping with absences in a number of ways and is using incentives and other resources to attract substitutes, as well as considering “contracting with third party companies that specialize in staffing.”

DSUSD has also brought on resident substitues who are assigned each day of the school year to a certain school and are managed by the school, which helps to "mitigate a lot of the paperwork and bureaucratic mess that can happen when you're using an automatic sub system," said Hyde.

DSUSD is also trying to create pathways for Master's graduates to become substitues, resident substitues, or even join a fellowship with the goal of becoming a contracted teacher.

Hyde also highlighted that DSUSD increased its daily sub rates last April, to $165 per day for a regular assignment and for a long-term assignment (anything 10 days or more), $185 per day.

When the district is unable to cover a sub position, it utilizes non-teaching certificated personnel. "These are people who are serving as instructional coaches and program facilitators," said Hyde. Any remaining openings are filled by site administrators or district administrators. "We're not using parent volunteers at this time, I think I heard up north they're having some success with that," noted Hyde. "We're not there yet," he added.

Hyde explained that dividing classes "is the very last thing" the district will do. He said once all other resources are exhausted the district may occasionally "divide students into another class" and "always try to make sure it's always the same grade level whenever possible." He added DSUSD has had to do this, particularly with elementary students, "a handful of times."

Lissette Santiago, Community Engagement Manager at Coachella Valley Unified School District, said schools “have seen a larger spike in absence rates for students and staff” since returning from the holidays. "As of yesterday, about 404 staff were absent from our district, which is about 18% of staff,” said Santiago.

She noted the district's latest COVID-19 case numbers "have been low." She noted there were 54 student cases on Wednesday and 66 cases among staff.

She said the absences don’t “necessarily mean” individuals are infected with COVID-19, and noted “personal emergencies or those waiting for COVID tests” are some of the reasons why people are out. CVUSD is also having trouble contracting substitutes.

“A lot of subs don’t want to come back because of the situation with COVID,” said Santiago. She explained the district has "other measures in place to ensure that students don't miss out on that educational time. For example, at the high school levels we give them different presentations on career technical education. Next Monday they have a class on financial literacy."

She said despite staff absences, the district is still "using that time" to "compliment" students' education. Santiago said that the district is “trying to build leadership from within” to help mitigate the staffing shortages at both the school and district level. In some cases, district staff are subbing for different classes at different schools.

In some instances where acquiring staffing is not possible, CVUSD will "put together some classes in the auditorium," said Santiago. She explained this has typically involved high school students, including some at Desert Mirage High School on Wednesday. A parent of a student at the at that school sent News Channel 3 a photo depicting students sitting in the school theater.

Santiago confirmed the picture was taken inside Desert Mirage High School, and explained the image showed "a class that we didn't have a teacher for and we didn't have additional personnel or substitues to come in and cover the class."

Desert Mirage High School class placed in auditorium Wednesday due to staff shortage.
Photo courtesy of parent

Santiago said that the district is “trying to build leadership from within” to help mitigate the staffing shortages at both the school and district level. No parent volunteers are being sought out at this time.

CVUSD is also working to invite recent Master’s graduates to the district, similar to what DSUSD is doing. Santiago said she believes a lot of “retired teachers will be eager to come back” and help schools in the district, following the passage of Governor Newsom’s recent executive order.  "I know sometimes they have limits on their assignments," but Santiago said she hopes this latest extension "will reduce the limits" on retired educators. She noted the order is once temporary and hopes it is eventually extended again.

The Palm Springs Unified School District is also facing staff shortages. Superintendent Dr. Mike Swize addressed the matter at Tuesday night’s board meeting. Swize said officials are “monitoring very closely the number of absences, both of students and of staff in critical areas.”

Swize said he met last week with executive leadership and cabinet to discuss “contingency plans for different departments” if the district faces large numbers of absences. He said the district gets a report every day “on the number of teacher vacancies where we don’t have a substitute.”

Over the last few days the district has been “able to manage all teacher absences, absences in nutrition services or with maintenance and operations,” said Swize. He added that their “priority is keeping students and staff at the school sites in a safe way.”

When asked how many staff members were absent on Wednesday, PSUSD provided News Channel 3 with a statement that said – in part – “while staff absences have increased due to COVID-19 (cases and exposures), we have been able to handle the coverage of classrooms so far.”

Statement from PSUSD regarding staff shortage

While the district didn’t share the number of staff absent Wednesday or Thursday, its COVID-19 case tracker located on its website shows 51 cases among staff were reported Wednesday and 78 Thursday. 

Stay with News Channel 3 for more continuing updates.

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Jennifer Franco

Jennifer Franco is the weekend anchor/weekday reporter for KESQ News Channel 3

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