There aren’t enough substitute teachers to step in when coronavirus keeps Texas teachers out of the classroom

Photo does not have a caption

When high school teacher Jennifer Lee came down with COVID-19-induced pneumonia during winter break, first-year teacher Hana Oglesby-Hendrix “adopted” her class.

The two teachers share a portable building at Harker Heights High School in Killeen Independent School District, and substitutes are harder to come by than in previous years. Since the beginning of January, Oglesby-Hendrix has regularly rushed to the door separating the two classrooms to make sure Lee’s students have everything they need, sometimes interrupting her own work if a student walks in late or needs help with an assignment. She receives supplemental pay, up to $120 per day.

Lee’s students regularly share their unhappiness with the arrangement. "They basically have become virtual students because that's where most of their work is," Oglesby-Hendrix said.

Texas school districts, like those across the country, are having trouble keeping their classrooms staffed as teachers stay home for COVID-related quarantine or isolation and the well of substitute teachers is drier than in past years. Like many other industries requiring in-person work during the pandemic, schools are being disrupted by the persistent employee absences and the inability to easily find replacements. School leaders are coming up with solutions on the fly: tagging in paraprofessionals and administrators to take over for teachers, combining multiple classes in a room and even reverting to virtual school for days at a time.

Texas is now requiring all school districts to offer in-person instruction with few exceptions. But school leaders and teachers know that, even with more students back in classrooms, normalcy is close to impossible until the pandemic is fully under control.

“Anything that you’re doing that’s adding instability to that environment is going to lower your students’ ability to uptake knowledge,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. “To think that’s not going to affect the learning of students whether they’re virtual or in person — it’s going to impact it.”

Lee, a family and consumer sciences teacher who is part of her local teachers union, started to feel sick on Christmas Day, eventually driving herself to the hospital when she couldn’t breathe. Throughout the crisis, she wondered fearfully: Who is going to teach my students?

At the beginning of the school year, Harker Heights High administrators had sent an email warning they were anticipating a substitute shortage and asking neighboring teachers to “adopt” one another’s classes in case of an emergency.