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Coronavirus pandemic could worsen substitute teacher shortage

As school districts work on plans for the upcoming school year, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association is worried there may not be enough substitute teachers.

DENVER — As school districts work on their plans for the upcoming school year, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) is worried there may not be enough substitute teachers. 

Henry Roman, the former DCTA president and a current high school math teacher, said even before the pandemic, there was already a substitute shortage within Denver Public Schools (DPS). 

"I believe this is not just an issue specific to DPS, but also pretty much an issue in many other districts," he said. "Most of our substitutes happen to be retired educators, and by definition, they are in that cohort or that group that faces more risks with this pandemic." 

Melba Salter shares those concerns. She's been a substitute teacher for 14 years in Denver. 

"Sometimes the secretary will call in the morning," she said, "Something happened and I will go." 

However, for the upcoming school year, if the phone rings, the answer will be different. 

"If they called me I certainly would not go," said Salter. "It wouldn't even be a thought for me." 

Salter said she is worried about her own safety, as well as the safety of other staff and students, as she keeps tabs on the number of COVID-19 cases.

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DPS' plan right now for the upcoming school year offers both in-person and remote learning. So far, 453 teachers out of 5,600 educators requested an accommodation for health concerns, either because of themselves or someone they live with. 

In a statement the district said: 

"The Governor’s Executive Order D2020 directs employers to accommodate Vulnerable Individuals who request to work remotely and encourages employers to accommodate those who with a household member who is a Vulnerable Individuals. The basis for who is considered Vulnerable Individuals is established under the executive order.

As an employer, we do not generally solicit medical information, so we do not know who is considered “higher risk.” However, to date, 453 teachers have requested an accommodation pursuant to the executive order.

Since we offer a 100% remote option for DPS students and accommodations for teachers would be providing remote instruction, it is matter of ensuring alignment with assignments rather than a shortage."

The district also said it's never had a 100 percent fill rate for substitute teachers - adding in an e-mail:  

"With the health guidelines restricting the number of adults in contact with students, we are trying to create plans that best utilizes the available guest teachers in a safe way for our staff and students."

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Jefferson County Public Schools plans to offer both in-person and remote learning.  

The district said it believes they can cover absences but knows the situation is fluid. 

In an e-mail the district said: 

"We believe we can cover absences, however the situation is fluid and we will maintain flexibility to ensure our students are receiving a high-quality education in the classroom. We are currently seeking additional substitute teachers in preparation for any increased absences in our schools." 

The district said substitutes can also pick which option they are most comfortable with: in-person learning or remote teaching. 

The issue is who will say yes. 

"The substitutes I've been talking to have been very concerned about this particular issue and highly unlikely to come to school," Roman said.

While subbing in for remote classes may be a more comfortable option for some teachers, Roman said to account for those teachers being brought up to speed on the different technology platforms used. 

Both JeffCo and Denver Public Schools said they are working on contingency plans to remain flexible as the COVID-19 case count changes. 

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