DUNKERTON — The pressures on Hannah Corbin and her colleagues at Dunkerton Community School have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly since this fall.
“We can’t get any subs, like most schools, and so when teachers are sick or gone for other reasons then we’re the ones covering internally,” said the ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher.
So “once or twice a week” she gives up her planning period to lead the class of an absent teacher. Two other teachers have the same planning time as her during the high school’s eight-period day. The trio tries to rotate who teaches a class when a substitute is needed, but sometimes there’s a classroom for each of them.
“This is my seventh year here and the six years previously we have had far more substitutes,” said Corbin. Substitutes have become scarce due to the danger of exposure to COVID-19.
“I know so far this year our secondary staff has probably given up more than 310 hours of our planning period,” she said, where class preparation and collaboration with other educators is done. The district has about 20 secondary teachers.
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Superintendent Tim Cronin said on 57 of the first 78 days of school, the secondary grades have been short substitutes and used at least one teacher to cover another classroom. The elementary school has needed to internally cover a classroom for a half or full day 46 of those days, primarily with paraeducators who have substitute certifications. Then the school is short-staffed in paraeducator roles.
On top of that, he said, “we haven’t been able to fill some custodial positions. ... We’re just kind of thin on everybody.”
While the school district hasn’t found a way to solve the problem, the Board of Education last month took a step to show some appreciation to the overtasked staff.
Board members approved “hero pay” for employees – a $1,000 stipend for full-time certified staff, like teachers, and classified staff, like paraeducators and food service workers. The board also approved a $500 stipend for part-time classified staff and a $300 stipend for “citizen coaches” – people employed by the district solely as coaches for its sports teams.
The bonuses were funded with federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief dollars that have been received by the Dunkerton district to help with recovery from the pandemic.
“It was presented as an opportunity and the board was very supportive,” said Cronin. He called it “a nice commitment by the board for the dedication of our staff.”
According to media reports, districts across the country have authorized similar ESSER-funded staff bonuses, including Cedar Rapids Community Schools. Other Cedar Valley school boards have not approved staff bonuses at this point, but the two largest districts are using ESSER funds for employee incentives.
Waterloo Community Schools has a $500 referral bonus available to paraeducators until March 1.
“We’re dealing with staff shortages in our paraeducators,” said Kingsley Botchway, Waterloo Schools’ chief officer for human resources and equity. If someone referred to the district is hired and remains on the job through the end of the school year, the person who made the referral will get the bonus in June.
He said the district is “looking at a comprehensive set of different incentives” for staff. It is also planning for Jan. 14 to be a “flex location” opportunity, meaning employees don’t have to be in their building for the combined professional development and work day.
Cedar Falls Community Schools offered an early notice incentive for teachers who plan on resigning at the end of the academic year. Notice had to be given by Jan. 4 to receive the $1,000 payment.
“Employers in all sectors of the economy, including K-12 education, are experiencing very challenging times filling vacancies,” Adrian Talbot, Cedar Falls Schools’ executive director of human resources, said in an email. “The earlier a district is notified that a teacher will be resigning, effective the end of the 2021-22 school year, the sooner it can begin the process of advertising and recruiting applicants to fill vacancies for the 2022-23 school year.”
He noted that “a number of larger districts within the state of Iowa have implemented such a program,” paying for the incentive with ESSER dollars. “The Cedar Falls District offered a similar program in January 2008, with those funds being made available by the state of Iowa under a program called Market Factor Pay.” The number of teachers who gave early notice this year was not available.
Cronin said the Dunkerton board’s action was done in time to be a sort of Christmas present to employees. A total of $68,950 has been paid out. That includes $56,000 for full-time certified and classified staff, $10,250 for part-time classified staff, and $2,700 for citizen coaches.
“We approved it at the December meeting so we could get it in their December payroll,” he said. “That was a little bit strategic because we thought it would be nice to have around the holidays.”
Corbin said she appreciated the gesture.
“I thought it was a wonderful thing that the board decided to do,” she said. “It showed me that they see what’s going on and that they understand that we’re struggling and we’re overextended and that we’re tired.
“This is them kind of showing their support to us for all the work that we’ve been doing,” she added.
Andrew Wind's most memorable stories of 2021
I covered a lot of news during 2021 that was important to the community. But certain stories stood out for one reason or another. The tragic death of a father and son, a reunion on stage of an educator and his nationally known student, the sudden loss of a retired music teacher and band leader, a rowing club marking four decades on the Cedar River, and the mysterious origins of a tombstone separated from its grave are among my most memorable stories throughout the year.
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