COVID-19 cases are at an all time high in Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS), which has led to students and staff missing classes and an extreme substitute shortage. Many students are without a teacher, and are forced into the Hellgate “commons” area because substitutes are difficult to find during the COVID-19 Pandemic spike.
In 2020, if cases rose above 25 cases per 100,000 people, the county was considered to be in the “red zone”. According to the Missoula County Health Department, on Oct. 5, Missoula had 85 new cases per 100,000 people. This is over three times the number that was considered dangerous last year. Not only is Missoula seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, but it also has the second largest number of infections in Montana, according to the Montana Department of State.
The MCPS District Health Services Supervisor, Brooke Krininger, stated that it took only two weeks to surpass the infection rate that took nine weeks to reach the previous year. This is partially because the Delta Variant is more transmissible, so the infection rate of COVID-19 is higher. This has resulted in a larger amount of hospitalizations.
Due to the higher number of positive cases this year, Krininger’s job is as chaotic as ever. She said that more than 90% of her job during this time is COVID-19 related. From processing positive cases and close contacts, to providing education and guidance constantly, her day is far from routine.
Before becoming the MCPS District Health Supervisor, Krininger was a nurse in the Intensive Care Unit. Despite her rich history in medicine, she said, “I don’t think in my 20-something years of nursing have I ever dealt with an illness that so many people address based on their opinions versus scientific facts and what we know.”
According to Krininger, this is complicated because the science on the virus is ever-changing and developing, so “that’s played into why people do just end up reverting back to their opinions.” Nevertheless, balancing the spectrum of individuals who want to take every precaution necessary and the individuals who take no precautions is difficult.
As many people know, due to the surge of cases in the country, finding staff and substitutes for schools has been hard to manage. David Rott, the Executive Director of Human Resources and Labor Relations for MCPS Schools, said, “I think if you drive up any of our streets you’ll see that the labor market in Missoula is particularly difficult. There just aren’t available workers.” As to why people are not subbing, the numbers have declined over the years and even students recognize that substitute teaching is a hard job to fill – high school students are not exactly sunshines and rainbows.
In order to find more substitute teachers, Rott said that they advertise regularly on their website, Craiglist and The Job Service, and attend events such as the University of Montana Job Fair and the Hilton Garden Job Fair. Additionally, the hourly rate was raised last year, and staff members who refer a substitute are eligible for a referral bonus of $100. Rott said, “We are progressively trying to do whatever we can to bring people in.”
On a given day, Rott explained that it isn’t infrequent to have 100 staff members out “which is a difficult challenge to try and have a temporary work staff of 100 people.” This year, in all of the Missoula County Schools, there are permanent substitutes. This means that each school has at least one person who is hired full-time to be a substitute teacher “that helps in case of an immediate need if something happens.”
The substitute shortage has primarily derived from the occasions in which teachers or staff are unable to put in for an absence until the day-of. Rott said, “If we have positions that we know in advance, they are easier to fill, but if it happens on the day-of it’s harder to fill.” The scenario in which students don’t have a substitute teacher is somewhat chaotic because students must sit in the common area and are expected to work on assignments the teacher has given them.
Rott said that although this year has been difficult, “we have a fantastic teaching staff that steps in when they can to cover. We also have administrators that try and help cover. I think it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to it, so everyone is pitching in and helping out.”
Vincent Giammona, the COVID-19 Response Coordinator, said, “The priority and goal, as recommended from the CDC, is providing as much in-person learning as possible.” Giammona, Rott and Krininger agree that the only way schools would shut down or go into remote learning is if the staffing shortage were to be too great to support in-person learning. Giammona said, “We have seen several districts, including AA, who have been forced to go to remote learning because of staff shortages due to COVID-19.”
However, Giammona explained that the goal for the year is to keep students in school. He said, “We have added additional staffing to help with contact tracing, and we will look to hire additional nursing staff or contact tracers if we need.” The MCPS COVID-19 Task Force meets periodically based on district needs or changes in “local, state or federal health requirements/recommendations.”
During the apocalyptic times we are living in, there are a few things you can do to stay safe. Krininger said that everyone should stick to small social circles, continue to wash their hands, minimize time in crowded spaces, continue to mask, get vaccinated and stay home if you experience symptoms of the virus.
The times we are living in right now are like no one could have ever imagined. Many people believed that the 2021-2022 school year would be closer to normal than the previous one. However, it has been far from normal. Students, teachers and staff are all adjusting to what life is like with a pandemic wreaking havoc on schools. With no end of the pandemic in sight, schools are pushing to stay in-person while also keeping all students and staff as safe as possible.