Sonja Isger
| Palm Beach Post

Headed into the second half of the school year, the strain of staffing Palm Beach County classrooms has eased somewhat since campus doors first opened in September. But with hundreds of teachers out on leave and the number of resignations and retirements outpacing those in years past — the struggle, as they say, is real. 

Hope that a mass inoculation of teachers would deliver some relief is fading quickly, particularly because in Florida the governor has ignored federal guidelines and placed those 65 and older ahead of essential workers in line. 

As teacher unions and various school boards lobby Gov. Ron DeSantis to put teachers on the vaccine priority list, principals, teachers, parents and students are left navigating the situation at hand. 

More: The gift of time: A PE teacher with cancer who knew so few gets sick days from many

Where once the district boasted a substitute pool that could cover about 90% of absences after winter break, the fill rate is now 65%, district administrators report. 

That’s better than it was in the first week of school, when substitutes could manage only 45% of vacancies, but far from ideal. 

Principals who find themselves short staffed on any given day are combining classes both in-person and remotely, asking teachers to cover a class during their planning period or absorb new students into their own classes temporarily, said the district’s Chief of Human Resources Gonzalo La Cava. 

Across the county, some students on campus for in-person lessons, are congregating — with 6-foot spacing — in the school gym or library where they plug in their laptops to take classes from teachers working remotely. 

Sometimes the fix is needed for a day. Other times, weeks. Some creative scheduling promises to stretch to year’s end.

Even with about 6,500 fewer students, the 10th largest school district in the nation is stretched thin. Palm Beach County’s public schools counted:

  • 13,240 teachers on its books last week, about 80 to 100 fewer than this time last year 
  • 536 resignations to date, a 12% hike over last year’s 480
  • 378 teachers out on leave, a 58% increase from 225 the year before

And everyday teacher absences are also in play. Some are heeding policies to stay home at the slightest sign of illness. Others have been quarantined for spells due to exposure to someone with COVID-19 but are still working from home. Some absences are just run-of-the-mill absences “because life is life,” says Grassy Waters Elementary Principal Jennifer Galindo. 

“The beginning of the year was hard; we struggled at first,” Galindo said. “We didn’t have any teachers resign, but we do have a hard time filling with subs.”

The need to keep students distant from one another has added to the logistics problems in person. So has the need to keep students connected to the virtual classroom when a teacher is not available. 

In a school of 745 students, about 300 are on campus daily. Some classes are combinations of remote and in-person learners, some are fully remote with a teacher operating from class, and other teachers preside over a full class seated in the room. 

Rearranging the deck for an absence can be tricky.

“If you don’t have a sub, it’s not like you can put them all in the same room,” Galindo said. 

She has had to disperse students to learn remotely from the empty classrooms of other teachers conducting lessons to a fully online group of students. They plug in computers and head sets — “that works when you have a teacher who has to quarantine.” 

But over the months, Galindo’s go-to solution has revolved around three substitute teachers whom she has secured to fill in for three staffers — not classroom teachers — on leave. The subs manage those jobs but can drop those assignments and lead classes when a teacher is out and needs to be covered. 

“I know this is not necessarily an option at all schools,” Galindo said. 

High school scheduling presents other hurdles. 

Palm Beach Lakes High boosted the Wi-Fi in its auditorium and runs a rotation of administrators through the room to manage the students who cycle through with their laptops to take a class taught by a teacher working remotely — a perfect solution for a teacher in quarantine, Principal David Alfonso said. 

Alfonso also relies heavily on teachers to pick up another class (for pay) during their planning period. 

“Subs are great, but these days it’s a lot to ask. They need to get into Google classroom, manage students online. You’ve got to motivate those students. A sub can’t do that,” he said. 

With pressure from DeSantis to bring more, if not all, students back to brick and mortar, teachers union president Justin Katz sees a growing argument for prioritizing teachers for vaccination. 

“The CDC recognizes that people who are interacting with more people are more susceptible (to catching the disease),” Katz said. “It defies logic,” he said, to argue as the governor does that schools should be open but not consider teachers “essential workers” whose health should be prioritized. 

So far, there is no record of spread happening in the county’s public schools, according to Dr. Alina Alonso, executive director of the Department of Health in Palm Beach County. She credits adherence to safety protocols including mask wearing and distancing in classrooms. 

More students on campus, as some forecast in the coming months, could present more logistical challenges. 

Students and parents are understandably frustrated. 

Jennifer Rosenblum’s seventh grade son, Jonas, who has been working remotely all school year, logged in this week only to discover he’d been directed to another teacher’s classroom. 

He tried messaging the teacher to figure out what was going on to no avail. Where was the teacher he had before the holidays? He worried, according to Rosenblum, mother of two in public schools who chose online learning due to family health vulnerabilities. 

“His panic level — it’s already so hard for him — he didn’t know what to do,” Rosenblum said. Eventually, she connected with the school’s principal. His regular teacher had a death in his immediate family, but he’ll be coming back. The switch-up is temporary. 

Her youngest, meanwhile, connects well with his teachers in core subjects, but in fine arts, he’s been left on occasion to watch videos while teachers engage elsewhere. 

“It really isn’t for a lack of trying. People are trying to do right by the kids,” Rosenblum said. She loves her schools. Wellington Landings Middle is “amazing” and Binks Forest Elementary, where her youngest is in third grade — “I really like Binks” —  but she is frustrated for her children. 

Boca Raton parent Michael Ross is still seething over the lack of planning that he believes could’ve better matched remote students with teachers who wanted to work from home, freeing the teachers on campus to give students there a more typical school experience. 

Instead, his seventh-grade son attends social studies class from the gym via computer while the teacher works from home. An adult in the room keeps kids from misbehaving, but “there’s nobody supervising him academically.” 

And the kid’s grades are tanking because of it, Ross said. Ross said his son, a 13-year-old honors student and “jock,” is suffering without a typical school experience and with local sports leagues lost, too. 

“Right before Christmas, he just completely shut down, was just not doing work,” Ross said. “He was depressed.”   

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