Aspen schools face substitute teacher shortage

An Aspen School District bus parked in front of Aspen Middle School on August 26, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Aspen School District drew five individuals to its first video presentation held Sept. 18 explaining the pressing need it has for substitute teachers.

The sparse showing, however, wasn’t for a lack of getting out the word, said Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry.

“We had 6,000 people open that last email,” Mulberry said of the district’s announcement of the meeting.

Facing a growing urgency for substitute teachers as it works to figure out how to open its entire campus to in-person learning, ASD blasted out another email this week for a second presentation Friday.

Nearly 20 people attended as Mulberry and Talita Garcia of the district’s human resources department briefed the group in a meeting lasting about 20 minutes.

Seeming to borrow a page from Uncle Sam’s playbook, Mulberry implored people to give guest-teaching a shot.

“Thank you so much,” Mulbbery said of Friday’s improved turnout.“This is really a civic and service response that we need here.

“And I liken it to any sort of public endeavor. I really appreciate all of you taking this seriously and wanting to help out the schools.”

The Aspen School District is accustomed to facing substitute teacher shortages, but the issue is exacerbated this year by the pandemic and the complexity of reopening the schools.

A number of the guest teachers in the past have been parents who haven’t committed this year because schools aren’t entirely open. There also are health concerns about teaching in-person classes during the pandemic.

The district needs at least 50 substitute teachers for this year, Mulberry said, noting it has 10 subs on board.

People without teaching certifications can apply for either a one-year or three-year substitute authorization. The one-year authorization requires a high school degree or an equivalent to teach; a bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for a three-year authorization.

During a normal year the district would be comfortable with about 30 guest teachers available. Yet the demands are greater, and complex, this year, Mulberry said. Full-time teachers who in the past relied on aid from their full-time colleagues can’t do that in the hybrid learning environment that groups teachers and students together. And when a teacher would previously call in sick, the school could use its existing staff for backup when needed, but it took many moving personnel parts to make it work, Mulberry said.

“We’ve had some extra hands with teachers stepping into classrooms to give a teacher a break if they need to be out of the classroom,” Mulberry said.

With that not being the case this year, Oct. 5 looms large for the district, as that’s the date Aspen Middle School would reopen classes using a hybrid or cohort approach.

But if just a few teachers fall ill — from the virus or something else —filling their void becomes onerous.

“That is even more exacerbated this year with COVID,” Mulberry told the Friday group. “It’s very likely that if we have what could be a COVID-like symptom or a possible COVID exposure, we are going to have shut down some of our cohorts and our hybrid models up to two to three days. That means the kids have to go home.

“The kids can go home very easily, but those teachers also have responsibilities at school, and if they’re not able to do that it ends up effectively shutting down the school if we can’t do that.

“So having this cadre of subs is essential to having that happen.”

Students will be in one of two cohorts (based where their last names fall in the alphabet) with each cohort alternating weeks attending in-person class. Students not in school would continue class online, which the middle school started the last week of August.

The high school would open under a hybrid-like model Oct. 19 if public health trends allow.

In the meantime, the elementary school has spread its students across the three school buildings since it started in-person class Sept. 8 using a cohort system where one group attends school Mondays and Tuesdays, the other Thursdays and Fridays. Teachers use Wednesdays for planning purposes.

Students in all schools also have the option to continue remote learning.

Over multiple school board meetings, some teachers have said how their abilities to effectively teach will be hampered by a lack of substitute help, in addition to the mounds of other challenges they face in today’s classroom settings — whether it’s something as simple as speaking clearly through their masks to students, or not being able to take five for a bathroom break because the kids can’t be left alone.

“Keeping us open is going to be a community responsibility in so many ways,” Mullberry said.