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Texas schools ask parents to fill in as substitute teachers

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The omicron variant has made education even harder. If you're not having this experience yourself, talk with any teacher or parent or student about the days since winter break ended. Many teachers are sick or quarantining. And schools are scrambling to find substitutes. Claire McInerny of KUT reports that some schools in Texas are getting creative.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What's up, Leo?

LEO: What's up?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How are you doing? Hey, Margaret.

CHRIS AGUERO: All right. Let me get the door for you and David.

CLAIRE MCINERNY, BYLINE: Every morning during drop-off at the Austin Jewish Academy, Principal Chris Aguero and other staff members go through the same routine - take a student's temperature, hand them a mask and ask how they're feeling.

AGUERO: In K through 5, at least, kids are just brutally honest. So how are you feeling today? Not great. Any, you know, cough or sore throat? I got both.

MCINERNY: But this screening process is no match for the latest surge of COVID-19 cases in Texas. With many teachers out sick or quarantining, it's up to office manager Karen Tarantolo to find a substitute.

KAREN TARANTOLO: Last year, we had kind of a group of regular subs - you know, former teachers, retired teachers, things like that - that we could draw on. But since COVID has really ramped up, those people have just kind of gone away.

MCINERNY: So Tarantolo has turned to the students' parents to see if they can help out.

TARANTOLO: For, you know, an hour, half-day, a whole day, you know? Whatever they can do, we're happy to have their help.

MCINERNY: This isn't a problem isolated at this small private school in Austin. The nearby Hays Consolidated School District is also asking parents to be substitutes. In other places across the country, districts are lowering the requirements for substitute teachers, waiving application fees and increasing pay. Austin ISD, the biggest public school system in the area, had 100 more sub requests last week compared to the same week last year. This high demand prompted the superintendent to go fill in at a high school math class. But mostly, says Francisca Schindler (ph), an elementary art teacher, teachers are carrying the burden.

FRANCISCA SCHINDLER: Say that there's three classes in the fourth grade, and one teacher doesn't show up. So those students are divided amongst the other two classes. So now they have a class and a half.

MCINERNY: She said that's tricky at her campus because a lot of the students are in language programs that don't mix and match. This latest surge has a lot of people asking, why don't schools go back to virtual learning? But in many cases, they don't really have a choice. The state of Texas won't fund schools unless they provide an in-person option. At the Austin Jewish Academy, Principal Aguero says in-person school is crucial to help kids keep a routine and provide normalcy. So he's thankful for the parents helping out.

MARISELA MADDOX: It's exhausting (laughter). It's physically exhausting.

MCINERNY: Marisela Maddox is one of the parents subbing. She's a trained attorney, has never been a teacher. But she's been filling in all school year.

MADDOX: There's always been lesson plans even when the teachers are out unexpectedly. Or the other teachers will help me figure out something that does keep the students engaged so we don't have to do the movie thing.

MCINERNY: She said she's happy to provide consistency to the students when so much is changing.

For NPR News, I'm Claire McInerny in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET MINER'S "MY FRIEND COMA") [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly states that a school superintendent in Austin, Texas, taught a math class because of a substitute teacher shortage. While she had planned to, she did not end up teaching the class.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 11, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
This story incorrectly states that a school superintendent in Austin, Texas, taught a math class because of a substitute teacher shortage. While she had planned to, she did not end up teaching the class.