Staff shortages send some Yakima County schools to remote learning

Four out of 15 local school districts temporarily moved to virtual learning

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Increasing staff shortages due to employees testing positive for COVID-19 or needing to quarantine because of a close contact have sent four out of the 15 school districts in Yakima County to remote learning.

Mount Adams School District was the first district in the county to transition its students to virtual classes this year due to staffing issues, followed by the Yakima, Toppenish and Wapato school districts.

“We all know it’s difficult on parents, but the most important thing is that we do our best: one, to keep students and staff safe,” Mount Adams School District Superintendent Curt Guaglianone said. “Second is to ensure high levels of learning everyday for our students and right now, that’s the best we can provide.”

All four districts called for at least a week long period of remote learning to provide absent staff and students enough time to recover from illness or make it through the required 5-day quarantine period after a close contact with a person positive for COVID-19.

Officials at several school districts said giving quarantined students and those out sick the ability to continue learning helped contribute to the decision for a temporary move to virtual learning.

Toppenish School District Superintendent John Cerna said before moving to virtual learning, about 20% to 30% of staff and 25% of students were absent from school.

Barring any complications, the Wapato, Toppenish and Mount Adams school districts will return to in-person learning Monday, while the Yakima School District is scheduled to return Tuesday.

School Districts In Virtual Learning

KAPP-KVEW reached out to all 15 school districts in Yakima County to ask about their plans regarding virtual learning. Of the 11 school districts currently maintaining in-person learning, none have plans to pursue remote learning on their own in the near future.

While most districts have contingency plans in place in case they are required again by the state to transition all students to remote learning, they are prioritizing in-person learning and have so far been able to fill vacant positions with other staff or substitutes.

“At this time, we’re holding steady,” Zillah School District Superintendent Doug Burge said. “We’ve had some staff out, but we’re not in crisis mode.”

Burge said the district hopes to continue with in-person learning indefinitely and would need at least three to five days if it became necessary for them to make the transition into remote learning. He said with a smaller school district like Zillah, it’s difficult to move resources around quickly.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Burge said. “Our plan is to try to keep the doors open.”

School bus drivers in short supply

While many schools have been using administrative personnel or other teaching staff to cover classes with absent teachers, operational positions are harder to fill because they often require additional training or certification.

“It really came down to bus drivers for us,” said Mike Balmelli with the Wapato School District. “We were just having barely enough drivers to get kids to and from school every day.”

Balmelli said the school district was struggling to find both permanent and substitute bus drivers prior to the current surge in COVID-19 cases, but are especially in need of them now. He said with adequate transportation, they should be able to go back to in-person learning Monday.

Guaglianone said the lack of school bus drivers was also a deciding factor in the decision for Mount Adams School District to move to remote learning. He said the district relies heavily on bus transportation.

They’re excellent when they’re available and able to come to work but with the COVID restrictions … they’re not available to drive to get children back and forth to school safely,” Guaglianone said.

Search for substitutes ramps up across Yakima County

Many local school districts have been struggling with a lack of substitutes for years, but are having a more difficult time with the shortage with the large number of permanent employees out sick or under quarantine.

Cerna said the Toppenish School District has been filling in vacant positions when they can, but don’t have enough teachers or administrative staff to cover all the vacancies.

“I think everybody is struggling with subs,” Cerna said.

Kris Diddens, executive director of human resources at the Sunnyside School District, said they’re actively working to recruit new substitutes.

“Someone that wanted to serve every day would be able to find work every day,” Diddens said.

Part of their recruitment efforts has been lowering the minimum age requirements for substitute paraeducators and substitute teachers in elementary schools.

Substitute paraeducators need to have a high school diploma, be at least 19 years old and be able to pass a background check. Substitute teachers for any grade must have at least an associate’s degree and pass a background check; the minimum age is 20 for elementary school teachers, but 21 for middle and high school teachers.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for somebody that’s considering a career in education to come and try it out to see if it’s the right fit for them,” Diddens said. “That’s beneficial to our community and beneficial to the substitute as well.”

Diddens said anyone interested in being a substitute should apply early, because it could take several weeks to complete the background check and fingerprinting, and to get an emergency substitute certificate from OSPI on the applicant’s behalf.

“They’re going to get a great opportunity to make connections with kids and make a difference in a kid’s life by providing a stable educational day for them while their teacher is away,” Diddens said. 

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