The new positions highlight the complexities and steep costs required to operate schools during the pandemic. Positive cases in classrooms and subsequent quarantines requires more communication with families, putting extra duties on educators. Testing of students takes more staff members to watch those children outside of the classroom.
But with a national staffing shortage, the ambitious hiring goal could be a challenge, though city officials say they hope that raises for substitute teachers and well-paying jobs could help the District buck this trend. The city will use contingency budget funds to initially pay for the hires, and then reimburse that money from the influx of federal relief funds.
“After a strong reopening, we are focused on supporting … our school communities as they continue to implement robust mitigation strategies,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said in a statement on Thursday.
An understaffed contact tracing team has resulted in delays of families being informed about the positive cases in classrooms and has forced principals to make uninformed decisions about who was exposed and needs to quarantine, The Washington Post reported last month.
The school system plans to double its number of in-house contact tracers to 20 people. The funding will also enable the system to assign each school a “Covid Strategy and Logistics Coordinator” who will help with contact tracing, notifications to families, and student testing.
The city is supposed to test a random sample of 10 percent of students at every school each week. By Nov. 15, under a D.C. Council bill, the city would need to test 20 percent of students at each school. But the District has struggled to reach its asymptomatic testing goals.
Each coronavirus test that the schools conduct cost $13, far lower than the $75 to $100 for commercial PCR tests, according to city data. The District has used federal funds to pay for the tests, and officials said money has not hindered testing. But it requires a significant amount of time to collect an adequate saliva sample from each student, and there is often not enough staffing to watch the students who are pulled out for testing.
Richard Jackson, who heads the Council of School Officers, a union for mid-level leadership in the school system, said principals welcomed the news, but they fear it could take a long time to get these new staffers in schools since they are still waiting on open teaching positions to be filled. “Principals are so overburdened that any additional help is going to be welcome, simply because it helps getting the work done,” he said.
The funding will also assign a permanent substitute teacher to every school. Each day of this academic year, the 52,000-student school system requests an average of 179 substitute teachers, but only fills 121 of those requests, according to data obtained by the office of D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). Part of the reason, according to the data, is that the city has fewer people in its substitute teacher pool. There are currently 662 substitute teachers in the pool, compared to 853 in the available group during the previous academic year.
In July, Myrtle Washington, president of Washington Substitute Teacher United, testified that substitute teachers in the school system are required to have a college degree and yet they earn only 15 dollars per hour on the job. She called on the city to increase their pay. “Do you know how much a school schedule is disrupted when substitute teachers do not show up?” Washington said. “I — we — do more than babysit.”
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said in a letter to staff that the school system would create greater financial incentives to attract more substitute teachers. He called on staff members to ask retired teachers to join the substitute teacher pool and said they are getting staff who work at headquarters to receive clearance to work in classrooms.