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Amid a substitute shortage and absences, Kern schools struggle to fill key roles

School campuses have roared back to life with students in Kern County, but making sure that crucial roles are fully staffed in the first weeks has been a major challenge.

School administrators say that a shallow pool of substitutes to cover when both teachers and classified staff are out during a surge of COVID absences has created struggles for staff, students and parents.

Rosedale Union School District Superintendent Sue Lemon said the number of absences throughout her campus is reminiscent of the winter COVID surge. Rosedale had trouble staffing its schools then, but there's one big difference now: 60 percent of her staff is now fully vaccinated and she said it has reduced absenteeism. 

But when a school or department is short-staffed, Lemon said, everyone works hard and takes on extra duties with one goal in mind.

"Everyone’s priority is to keep kids in school," she said.

For instance, administrators and specialists are on the rotating list of certificated substitutes who can pitch in should the absences become dire.

"I just have to commend my staff," Lemon said. "They’re stepping up."

These are the sorts of stories that you hear from every district. Panama-Buena Vista Union School District pulled staff from its transportation office and shop who have their bus driver's license, including a secretary, router and supervisor, and put them on the road to cover bus routes.

"It's a real struggle, but they're getting it done," Glenn Imke, assistant superintendent of business services, told the board at its August meeting.

Transportation has been perhaps the hardest department to staff in schools nationally, amid a shortage of qualified bus drivers. BCSD cut its bus stops preliminarily, anticipating absences that would come with the COVID surge this year.

The Kern High School District didn't cut back its routes, but it has had trouble covering its routes and extracurricular activities, according to William Sandoval, assistant superintendent of human resources.

Lemon said on Friday, Rosedale Union was down four bus driver drivers, which meant that parents had to be notified that bus riders would be picked up and dropped off late. 

Making sure classes are covered has also been tough. In high schools, the substitute teacher shortage means that sometimes teachers cover classes during their prep period or classes are combined.

Besides asking administrators and specialists to step in, Rosedale Union has tried a new tactic to deal with a substitute shortage in classrooms. Each school has one guaranteed substitute through December, which offers both the school and the substitute a certain degree of stability. It seems to be working. To date, there's only been one day when a substitute teacher wasn't needed in a classroom, and this substitute was needed as a substitute instructional aide, Lemon said.

School districts are on a hiring spree, and they have the state funding to do it. This year's state budget funded schools at historic levels. But administrators said they're not getting many takers. This isn't an issue unique to education. Many industries locally and nationally are struggling to hire and properly staff their businesses.

Many of the substitutes districts relied on before the pandemic weren't utilized during the shutdown, said Sandoval. He believes they've moved on to other opportunities.

The current countywide pool of certificated substitutes in August was just slightly larger than half of what it had been in 2019-20.

Sandoval has a message for those who are still interested: "We need you. We’re back in person. We have all the right safety protocols in place."

Sandoval said that KHSD is looking to do a lot of hiring of instructional assistants, bilingual assistants and special needs assistants.

"That’s our greatest need," he said.

They're also looking to hire substitutes in just about every department: food service workers, campus security and clerical specialists. 

Sandoval said the district is trying to incentivize candidates by removing barriers, such as paying the fingerprinting fees for new hires. There is also a sign-on bonus for completing compliance training and a bonus for substitutes who work 11 days each month.

"We’re making an investment in them," said Sandoval.

He said the district tends to hire full-time staff from within its substitute pool — that tends to be true at many districts. 

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.