Homework on a tablet

The public schools’ COVID-19 response requires more work, and, therefore, more staff. But the schools can’t find people to fill those jobs.

Teton County School District No. 1 has openings in both the janitorial and paraprofessional ranks, two areas that will be crucial as it approaches returning to the classroom full-time, whenever that is. The problem didn’t develop recently. Instead it has plagued the district all year.

“I know we advertised for more paraprofessionals, and we only got one application,” school board Trustee Bill Scarlett said at a school board candidate debate in early October.

As of Tuesday, the situation was much the same, communications director Charlotte Reynolds said. Because teachers are spending so much more of their day with students because of the hybrid learning model and the pods younger students learn in, the district wanted more paraprofessionals to fill in gaps or give teachers breaks.

Similarly, because the district’s COVID-19 response includes increased cleaning of surfaces, custodial staff are an important piece. However, at least two janitors have left this year, leaving the district shorthanded and forced to hire contract custodial workers.

It may be awhile before the district finds replacements.

“It often takes quite a while to fill those vacancies,” Reynolds said. “They are, you know, hard work. It can be a little less than glamorous.”

In a report to be presented at Wednesday’s Board of Trustees meeting, Food Services Director Wes Clarke said his department is also short one position. Openings are an inevitable reality during any year, but those support positions take on new weight as they shoulder a heavier load in responding to the virus.

To keep up on the cleaning, the district has hired contract workers. They have maintained the level of sanitation laid out in the plan, Reynolds said, but the district would prefer to rehire those positions because if others quit, the custodial department could begin to fall behind on its duties.

The lack of paraprofessionals in particular could hamstring the district’s goal of returning to full-time, in-person instruction. At the elementary school level, students are in the classroom four days each week, with Fridays being a virtual education day.

Teachers and administrators use those Fridays for professional development, planning and student interventions. Because they spend so much of their other days with their classes, teachers don’t have time throughout the week to do those things.

“As long as we have to maintain the COVID precautions ... we want to remain in a four-day, in-person model,” Colter Elementary School Principal Bo Miller told the board in September. “Once we can remove those precautions, then we can free up staff back to a more normal setting.”

Hiring paraprofessionals, who assist teachers in their classrooms, would help, and the district would spend the money to do so if it could find applicants. But, Reynolds said, “those are positions that are challenging to fill in the best of times” because less taxing or skilled positions may exist in the community that pay the same or better.

Without those paraprofessionals, returning to a five-day in-person schedule is out of reach, according to the elementary school educators who have presented at the last couple of board meetings. Even if they were hired, the rising COVID-19 cases in the community might keep the district from making that transition.

Because of that uncertainty, the district isn’t eyeing any dramatic moves.

“At this point, … we are not preparing to transition or to make adjustments to our current schedule,” Reynolds said.

Following publication of this story, the school board approved moving to full online instruction, citing the difficulty of keeping teachers in the classroom because of quarantine orders. — Eds. 

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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