Aspen school employees feel compounding stress of staffing shortage |

Aspen school employees feel compounding stress of staffing shortage

A large substitute pool doesn’t translate to equally widespread classroom coverage

A sign hangs over the Aspen High School gymnasium on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Facing a dire need for classroom coverage and an insufficient number of substitutes during a surge of COVID-19 cases, many Aspen School District employees are taking on additional work to fill the gaps and ensure that schools stay open.

That’s “the reality of the situation in the buildings,” Aspen High School history teacher and academic coordinator Tameira Wilson said Wednesday during public comment at a Board of Education meeting.

“It is really the teachers and building admin and district admin that are carrying us through this because they are working extra, they are covering other people’s classes in order to make sure that we stay open,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s said her comments were in response to human resources director Amy Littlejohn’s assessment last week that the district had a “healthy” pool of substitute teachers. Wilson said she found that was not the case, given that so many teachers and staff are stretching to cover classes where substitute vacancies haven’t been filled.

Littlejohn stands by her assessment of a “healthy” substitute pool because there are 80 active substitutes on the roster, she wrote in a series of emails responding to a request for clarification from The Aspen Times after the public comment section of the Board of Education meeting.

There are, however, some caveats that explain why that hasn’t translated to equally healthy classroom coverage, she wrote.

Many substitutes on the roster are only available between one and five days per month, and there are far fewer substitutes picking up jobs at the high school than those picking up jobs in the elementary and middle schools, Littlejohn wrote.

In the first two weeks of January at the high school, just 25% of short-term vacancies — 23 jobs out of 94 openings — were filled by a substitute teacher, leaving 71 unfilled positions to be covered internally, according to data Littlejohn provided Wednesday.

The elementary school and middle school also are struggling, with a fill rate around 58% for early January at both schools. The elementary school filled 46 jobs out of 79 openings with substitutes and the middle school filled 38 jobs out of 66 openings with substitutes as of Wednesday.

(A job represents a single vacancy on a single given day: one teacher out for five days would result in five different jobs in the data count. Five teachers, each out for one single day, would also count as five different vacancies.)

That left a lot of classrooms in need of coverage in order to kick off 2022 with in-person learning: 71 unfilled jobs in the high school, 28 in the middle school and 33 in the elementary school.

November and December data also shows a need for more substitutes, though the fill rate was higher overall. The elementary school filled 79% of substitute jobs in both November and December; the middle school filled 77% of jobs in November and 66% in December; the high school filled 53% of jobs in November and 63% in December.

The district has been able to keep the doors open amid a “staggering” need for staff because the positions “were covered internally by staff members” who sacrificed planning periods or stepped into unfamiliar roles to ensure classes could continue in person, Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry said Thursday in a phone call.

“I just want to just really commend everybody on the work they did to (get) that (coverage). … We wouldn’t be able to keep open if people hadn’t cooperated,” Mulberry said. “So (I’m) just so proud of the staff, and it’s — they’re certainly tired.”

The latest shortages have added even more strain to a year already made challenging by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to Marnie White, an Aspen Elementary School music teacher who is part of the leadership team of the Aspen Education Association teachers union.

“Our staff is overworked and is fast approaching burnout. … It’s hard for everybody, because nobody wants to say no, because they all know how hard everybody is working,” White said.

“Everybody is just so beyond stressed.”

The association is encouraging staff to take some time for their mental and physical well-being but also recognizes that doing so is easier said than done. Community support is crucial, White said.

“We need everybody’s support, we need everybody to come together to have some additional understanding … that this is a really hard time, and that everybody is doing the best that they can, and for parents to have understanding, extra understanding of that, and that we’re going to be needing additional support materially down the road,” White said.

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