‘I’m always on the verge of tears’: Coeur d’Alene teachers, subs detail exhaustion during staffing crisis

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho – Schools are near the tipping point during this coronavirus surge.

The Coeur d’Alene School District says it’s having constant conversations about possibly moving some of its schools to remote learning because of the staffing crisis.

On Tuesday, of the district’s 600 teachers, 106 teachers and paraprofessionals called out. The district only had 62 substitutes to fill in, so there was a gap. A majority of staff are out because of COVID, whether it’s a positive test or just exposure.

“It’s real tough right now. We’re on our fourth consecutive day with over 100 teachers and other instructional staff being absent,” said Scott Maben, the director of communications for the district.

Maben says they’re trying to do whatever they can to avoid going remote. They’re exhausting all options. This includes having district staff come and teach in classrooms or combining classes where allowed.

Every day is a struggle right now for schools as many staff, including substitutes, call out.

“Definitely just kind of on a daily basis in survival mode, working to fill holes. The substitute shortage presented numerous challenges in filling those holes,” said Brett DePew, the principal of Sorensen Magnet School.

Crystal Bain, a fifth-grade teacher with the Sorensen Magnet School, had to jump between two classes during this staffing crisis.

“I’m always on the verge of tears because I’m super tired,” Bain said.

The school is much smaller than others in the district. Even having a total of six staff out, including three teachers, it’s made things much more difficult.

“It’s a lot. It’s me trying to make sure I have my kids on task and being able to zip over and make sure they’re okay, and zip back over and make sure they’re still on task,” she said of teaching both classes. “It’s a lot of, it’s a lot more classroom management than I’ve had to do in the past.”

The second class Bain has to look after does have a substitute watching after kids. On Tuesday, it was Sumer Comfort, the district’s instructional coach. She normally goes into schools to help and coach teachers. This week though, she’s teaching inside classrooms.

“I would definitely say it is stressful, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that we’re coming together as a team and community to really do what’s best for kids,” Comfort said.

Comfort has taught in schools before, but her position changed just last year. Now, she’s back to her roots, filling in wherever she can.

When she came in to help on Tuesday, she didn’t know what’d she be doing yet. Principal DePew told Comfort he needed her in a fifth-grade classroom.

“It takes a team. Right now, we do not have enough substitute teachers to cover our teachers who are out sick. We always talk about it takes a village to raise kids, it’s kind of the same mantra with subbing right now, is that it really is taking a village right now,” Comfort said.

When DePew should be overseeing the whole school, even he had to step into a classroom for the majority of last week.

“There’s two sides of that. One side, it’s a great opportunity for me to be able to get out of my office and spend time with kids, the best part of my job,” he said. “The challenge is while I’m in those classrooms substituting, my workload in the office continues to pile up. Just trying to manage my time and continue to find the balance.”

Like DePew, even with Comfort coming in to help, she still has to do her daily job of being an instructional coach. So, there are times she has to go somewhere else and another person needs to go into the class she’s filling in.

“Honestly, I didn’t think we would be here. It’s just, it’s disheartening a little bit. I thought we’d be through this by now,” she said. “Like I said, at the same time, it’s nice to know that we have the support of our school district, of all of the staff. Just the kindness that I’ve seen and just teachers who just care.”

With teachers and other staffing filling in wherever they can, students’ education is not where it should be. Bain knows that consistency is helpful for kids, but going through this tough time right now, they’re making due.

“It’s nice to have that consistency for them, to keep that gradual growth. Having it inconsistent is making it a little harder, but we’re doing the best that we can and keep them going,” Bain said.

The district says it’s keeping a close eye on the absent numbers as they change daily. Maben says they will communicate with families as soon as they make a decision for remote learning, which they’re still thinking about. If they do decide to go remote, it’s a big task staff have to take on and make sure kids are ready for it.

The Coeur d’Alene School District also does not require masks at this time, only strongly encouraging it. Maben says that’s a decision the school board makes.

He told 4 News Now he hasn’t heard the board talking about it recently.

“At this time, no, we don’t have masks back on the table for discussion,” he said.

Maben says they have increased daily substitute rates to $110, increasing it by $30 a day over the last three years. They’re also offering incentives.

To learn more about substituting in the Coeur d’Alene School District, click here.

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