A glimpse behind the curtain: Seeking balance between safety, live instruction

A glimpse behind the curtain: Seeking balance between safety, live instruction
Posted on 10/20/2020

Good evening!  

Now in the middle of the sixth week of school, I would like to share a few thoughts and observations about our reopening, a glimpse behind the curtain, along with a few items that will be presented at the School Board meeting Thursday night that are important to sustaining a long-term view and excellent financial health of the school district.  

First, reopening!  Since last Spring, we knew that when and how to reopen our schools would become contentious.  Within each of our various stakeholders groups - students, parents, guardians, teachers, support staff, local businesses and community members, there are wide-ranging opinions on what we should do and how we should do it.  Our purpose and passion for existing is clear - it is all about educating our students and preparing them for life after graduation - and we also know we cannot achieve our purpose without the hard work and genuine commitment of our awesome faculty and staff in classrooms and front offices across eight schools.

The conundrum for the School Board and me is what is the appropriate level of precaution to maintain a healthy and safe environment that allows us to get students back in classrooms and to have our teachers there, too.  Our task is to find and sustain the right health and safety balance between having students in class and having the support of our teachers so they feel safe!  It is more than fair and honest to say that there is concern, even fear in our employee ranks in regards to COVID-19.  For some, this pandemic has already touched their families and themselves directly.  From our recent QCSD parent survey, we know that almost 80% of the more than 1,500 parents with children in live school instruction who responded were comfortable or very comfortable with our health and safety protocols, and so we appear to be on the right track.

Like other districts across Bucks County and Pennsylvania, staffing in Quakertown schools this fall is unlike any other year.  This is the first year I have been concerned about having enough Quakertown teachers in our buildings on a daily basis.  My first task when I wake up each morning is to check to see how many teaching positions we have unfilled for the school day. Chief Operating Officer Zach Schoch put together a presentation for the August 13th Board meeting on the tipping point for teacher absences and school opening. So my first check is to see that we can safely open each of our schools.  We are already using instructional coaches, intervention specialists, and principals to cover absences, in addition to having teachers on quarantine status teach remotely.  While these strategies allow us to open, we risk short changing our students in their education in certain content areas due to staffing shortfalls.

Teaching in a COVID-19 sensitive world sent many of our experienced teachers into retirement - 17 teachers so far this year, with another 10 teachers currently out on Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) leave, with four more applications pending.  As we continue planning to reopen our secondary schools for live instruction five days a week on November 18th, we expect at least a few more teachers to retire, with several others taking the FFCRA leave through December.  While we can meet the custodial expectation of taking in more students on a daily basis, we could possibly get to a point where we may not have enough qualified teachers in QCSD classrooms to meet your educational expectations, certainly not mine.

Just finding substitute teachers on a daily basis is near impossible.  For example, right now, we have 9 unfilled regular teaching positions, and from 11 to 20 unfilled substitute teacher assignments each day.  This fall, the Board authorized the Administration to double the number of Building-Based Substitutes from 8 to 16.  Right now, we are short 9 BBSs.  The Board also raised the per diem rate for substitute teachers from $105 to $120 per day. Long term per diem pay was raised from $140 to $175 per day, highest in the area. Those initiatives have not yet brought in any new substitutes.  Several of our parents did join our substitute pool earlier this year, thank you!  

Looking forward to Thursday night’s board meeting, there will be several items of interest.  First, enrollment projections for 2021-22 and beyond continue to trend downward. That downward trend has accelerated, in addition to the students we have lost for pandemic related reasons.  Our Social/Emotional Learning task force leaders and school counselors will be sharing their insights on how our SEL lessons are going, and on how students are doing. Our Office for Teaching & Learning team will be sharing the results of our beginning of year benchmark testing. This will help teachers identify where students are with their learning after the spring shutdown. Finally, we will share information about our current financial situation and fund balance carryover.  By putting into place specific cost saving measures last March, we were successful in capturing a savings of more than 4% of the QCSD 2019-20 Budget, or about $4.9 million.  

Thank you for reading and always interested in your feedback and thoughts.

Bill Harner

Superintendent, QCSD

wharner@qcsd.org

@BillHarner

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