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Plano School District 88 returning to pre-COVID normal, but staff challenges linger

Plano School District 88 Superintendent Tony Baker said the district is working on coming back from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger while dealing with staffing challenges.

While the district’s operations are returning to normal, it is still in need of substitute teachers and bus drivers as the new school year begins.

“The number one resource we have, and the majority of our expenses are people,” Baker said. “It is a constant challenge for our administrators to recruit, hire and retain quality staff, and It’s a more challenging time than ever to do those three things.”

Baker said the district is currently fully staffed, with just under 500 employees filling all vacancies, but they are continuously looking for substitute teachers.

“When I was a principal, we would get 300 applicants for an elementary position,” Baker said. “I get 40 now.”

Baker attributed the decline in applicants to the competitive nature of the job market and fewer students going into the field of education.

The district has three categories of substitute teacher positions: regular subs, who take one-day assignments; permanent subs, who are dedicated to one building; and long-term subs, who take over for extended periods of time, developing lesson plans and grading students as a teacher would.

Baker said the district has raised the base pay for all three categories of substitutes in order to make the position more desirable to potential candidates.

Regular substitutes now earn $120 per day, permanent substitutes earn $140 per day, and long term substitutes earn $185 per day, an increase of $10 to $20 for each position.

Baker said the district has also been going to job and career fairs more often and using social media to promote the district and attract quality candidates.

The district employs all of its own bus drivers, and Baker said staffing bus drivers has been a challenge as unexpected retirees and resignations have stretched the staff very thin.

The district currently has roughly 30 drivers, and Baker said they would ideally have at least 40 people in that department. He said the nationwide driver shortage, along with the lengthy process to become a bus driver has made replacing drivers a long and difficult process.

The shortage has forced the district to take a new approach to start and dismissal times.

Baker said after discussions with the transportation service, they decided to adjust the schools’ start times to make the schedule sustainable with the staff they have.

While they have not been able to raise bus driver pay which starts at $19.57 per hour, Baker said the new system will hopefully make the position more enticing for potential hires by offering more flexible hours.

Baker acknowledged that reviews from parents have been mixed at school board meetings and on social media. He said some like the new system and for others it has been detrimental to their morning routines.

“I am sympathetic to that,” Baker said. “I live that same life, juggling three kids’ schedules. But if that’s what we need to do to make sure kids get to school everyday and get an education on site, that’s a heck of a lot better than having to go to remote learning for a day because we didn’t have enough buses.”

Baker said it appears that under the new schedule, all students are getting to and from school safely, which is the school district’s biggest priority.

Baker described the district’s approach on getting back to normal as a “progressive reset” in which returning to normal is the goal while also learning from the changes and challenges they have faced.

“We’ve had opportunities to get better,” Baker said. “We’ve learned a lot about ourselves, how we move kids, and how technology should work in the classroom.”

In recent years, district students have kept their backpacks with them in instead of using lockers, in an effort to keep social distance.

Baker said the change has proved beneficial for the schools, as students are less likely to bring prohibited items, knowing their backpacks are subject to search.

Baker said COVID-19 protocols accelerated the schools’ implementation of 1:1 ratio of computer devices to students. Every student now has a device of their own, which he said would have likely taken longer without the pandemic forcing them to adapt quickly.

Baker added that with a device in every student’s possession, the district no longer has to take days off of school due to inclement weather.

Baker said the district’s number one priority was to make sure students and staff are safe at all times. He said in recent years, most of the safety discussions revolved around masks and distancing, rather than armed staff.

Baker is part of an administrative focus group that meets twice a month, working with the Plano Police Department to have officers do walk-throughs at every school.

Baker said the district is continuing efforts to add more security cameras, and currently have hall monitors stationed at three of the five schools, but Resource Officer Alex Lopez is the only armed member of the school district staff.

“He’s been a great resource,” Baker said. “He’s there any time you have a critical situation, but he’s also there on a proactive measure to educate kids, be visible in the buildings and create a rapport with the students.”

Lopez is mutually employed by the district and the Plano Police Department who share the cost of his salary.

“He truly is a genuine, caring person,” Baker said. “He really wants the kids to be safe and things to go well in our district.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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