Drivers needed

Like many other school systems, Fayette County Schools has had issues in recent months with staffing in areas such as bus drivers and substitute teachers and aides. It's an ongoing problem, officials say.

The first semester of the 2021-22 school year featured more stability than in 2020-21, Fayette County Schools Superintendent Gary Hough said.

"I think we've been able to be a lot more consistent," Hough said ahead of Christmas. "The fact that we wore masks (all still must mask up in school buildings) prevented us from having to quarantine as much, and that kept consistency in those classrooms.

"Whether people agreed with the political argument of masks on either side, our issue has been we don't want to get involved in the political argument, our idea is it gives us the ability to not to have to quarantine the massive amount of students we did. We tried to do it in another way, and in the first two weeks (of the school year) we had 700-some quarantined."

The system started the school year relying on individual measurements to guide quarantine scenarios at individual schools, but a state directive that allowed school systems to not to have to quarantine if masks were worn was "what really changed our perspective," said Hough.

Available personnel has often been a negative issue as the school year progressed, the superintendent said.

"Of course, we've struggled with substitutes like anybody else," he said. There has been "some improvement" recently, and "our staff (central office, including Hough) has gone out some (to teach in the classroom), too; I think that has made a difference."

A financial incentive also kicked in at the end of November to soften the manpower shortage. "The fact that we've agreed to pay teachers for their planning periods so they can fill in has relieved that a little bit," said Hough. "It's still an ongoing issue, it's an ongoing issue statewide and nationwide. It is a matter we continue to battle."

Teachers who agree to participate are paid one-eighth of their daily rate of pay to cover a class on their planning period in the absence of an available substitute. The school system operates on eight-period days.

Margaret Pennington, associate superintendent of personnel and operations, concurred with Hough on the lack of substitutes.

"We are still short teacher, cook, custodian and aide substitutes in some locations on some days," she said. "We continue to post and accept applications for substitutes in these areas.

"In addition to some Central Office staff substitute teaching when possible, Superintendent Hough and the Board agreed to pay teachers for their planning period on days they volunteer to cover for an absent colleague for whom no substitute is available. This went into effect on Nov. 29.

"While we are still short sub teachers, the monetary compensation for teacher planning periods seems to have helped ease the stress a bit."

While admitting colleges don't turn out as many teachers as in the past, Hough said that, to combat shortages going forward, the aim is to "get out and recruit a little more for teachers and substitutes, and that's what we'll be doing. It's not an easy fix."

He said teacher absences have been "the pretty normal teacher absences we run into."

"I think there is some stress; I'm not going to say that that's not the case," Hough added. "I think more we've dealt with not having the amount of subs available that we've had previously. We depended a lot on some of our retirees" and Covid-19 may have "affected their thoughts about subbing."

"I think we've minimized the loss of instructional time compared to what it was a year ago," Hough said, stressing that officials are "very conscious of that issue."

Among the other areas that have featured problematic personnel shortages are among bus drivers, he noted. A group of new drivers was in training near the end of December to help in that situation.

"We've had to cancel some routes," Hough said. "We've tried to smatter those out and move people around and move our mechanics around so people can fill in.

"We've moved them around so we don't have a consistent run canceled every day."

Shortage of bus drivers can also affect extracurricular activities. "We try to make sure we minimize the amount of activities that leave prior to the end of the school day, because that's when you run into substitute problems," Hough said. They continue working hand-in-hand with the schools and the athletic directors, and, "If we have to, give preference to varsity sports."

The superintendent said he thinks students are more settled and learning better than a year ago. "I think we've tried to prioritize what we're teaching" and minimize the amount of wasted time.

All must continue to mask up on buses and inside schools, and crowds at athletic contests are also asked to don masks.

As the second semester arrives, Hough said the addition of teacher aides in Grades 1-2 at the start of the school year will be one of the programs which will continue.

He also stressed that students or their parents are urged to reach out to their principals if they run into any learning issues or problems in other matters. There are several programs of support of which parents and students can take advantage.

Input from school ambassadors, staff and others is welcome, Hough said. The aim is "to continue to try to send the message we appreciate those teachers. But it is tough right now. We appreciate all of our personnel, our cooks, our custodians, our aides, our secretaries, our maintenance workers, the bus drivers. We try to make sure that everybody knows they're appreciated."

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