Pickerington Schools: Absences down, but substitutes harder to find during pandemic

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Pickerington Schools

Clarification: A substitute teacher assigned to one specific teaching position after 60 days will be paid and receive benefits at the district's Step 0 rate for full-time teachers. An earlier version of this story did not stipulate the requirement of one specific teaching position to reach that status.

Pickerington Schools has been challenged by staff absences throughout the 2020-21 school year, but staff actually missed more work in the months leading up to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

According to Pickerington Schools officials, the district occasionally struggles to find substitutes for teachers and other staff throughout the school year.

That’s been the case again this year, particularly among non-teacher, “classified” staff. Those positions include building custodians, secretaries, classroom aides, paraprofessionals, office assistance, maintenance workers and cooks.

In response to periodic shortfalls, the district in November raised hourly rates of pay for all classified substitute employees through the remainder of the 2020-21 school year. The increases ranged from 10 cents for duty aides (from $9.15 to $9.25) to $4.60 for maintenance workers (from $12.15 to $16.75).

Pay for substitute teachers remained at $105 per day for the first 20 days of a school year, and $115 per day for 21 to 60 days. Subs who work more than 60 days in the same position are paid at the district's Step 0 rate for full-time teachers ($43,414 annually), which amounts to $233.41 per day, according to Ryan Jenkins, district treasurer.

“We also pay retired teachers and high-need areas $115 per day for days one through 20, and $125 per day for days 21 through 60,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said covering absent teachers each school day “has always been a challenge, regardless of the pandemic” but acknowledged it has been more difficult this school year.

But according to data provided by Jenkins that was compiled by Frontline Research and Learning Institute, Pickerington teachers, per employee, missed more time from work prior to the pandemic since they have they have since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

According to Frontline, Pickerington Schools teachers, on average, missed nearly three days of school in October 2019. That number dropped to just more than 2 per month in November 2019, and stayed between 2 and 2.5 days per month through February 2020.

After the pandemic, in-person classes were shut down by state order and students finished the 2019-20 school year taking online classes.

For the 2020-21 school year, Pickerington Schools implemented a hybrid model that saw roughly half of the students attend in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half of the student body took in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays.

During the time, according to Frontline, monthly absences per teacher were about 1.5 days in September and about 2 days in October. Those monthly averages per teacher remained more than 2 days through November and December but were less than 2.5 days. The average also dropped below 2 days in January.

The district is scheduled to return to in-person classed five days a week beginning April 5. Pickerington Education Association President Heather Tinsley, whose group represents 685 Pickerington Schools teachers, nurses, guidance counselors, media specialists and special services providers, did not respond to a request for comment.

The district has compiled different data for its COVID-19 dashboard throughout the year.

For the first three months of this school year, it tallied “probable” and “confirmed” positive coronavirus cases among student and teachers.

For teachers during that time, cases ranged from one the week of Sept. 12-18, to six the week of Oct. 31-Nov. 6.

Beginning the week of Nov. 21-27, the district began tabulating the number of absences for any reason among teachers, paraprofessionals and duty aides, as well as the absence rates for those staff.

Excluding the weeks when the district was on holiday break, absences and absence rates among staff ranged from 362 (10.49%) the week of Nov. 28 to 475 (11.02%) the week of Dec. 5.

For the most part, the numbers have declined each week from the week of Jan. 9, when there were 405 absences (9.38%), to the week of Feb. 13, when there were 159 absences (3.69%).

“(Staffing) has been challenging, but not substantially more challenging than in past years,” Jenkins said.

On Jan. 7, Gov. Mike DeWine signed legislation waiving the requirement for substitute teachers in the state to have a bachelor’s degree for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

Jenkins said Pickerington Schools requires teaching substitute to have a high school diploma.

As for bus drivers, the district contracts for transportation services with Petermann Bus Services.

Petermann General Manager Jeff Vrabel Sr. said that the company has seen 10% absence rates among drivers for Pickerington Schools “at times” this school year.

“Finding great candidates to fill school bus driver positions is always a challenging task,” Vrabel said. “With the outbreak of COVID-19, it has become more difficult as there are still many people afraid to be out in public. 

“There have been more drivers off throughout this school year compared to other years due to quarantining and testing positive for COVID-19.”

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate