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COVID spike in Billings schools leads to critical need for substitute teachers

Posted at 7:08 AM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 09:09:15-05

BILLINGS — Monday’s numbers out of Great Falls were staggering - more than 125 COVID cases among staff, with less than half of the absences covered. It's led to everyone's least favorite outcome - remote school for the rest of the week.

As numbers rise in Billings, the need for substitute teachers is now more critical than ever.

"I could work every single day, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.," said Darrell James.

James is in his first year as a Billings School District 2 sub after moving back from New York last year. He chooses to work about three days a week in semi-retirement, but that number could be much higher.

"Sometimes I get a call directly from the school saying ‘Can you come in now?’" James said. "It’s two hours into the day, and they say, ‘Yeah, we don’t have anybody.'"

Those calls are about to grow. New COVID numbers from the first week of school in 2022 show 40 staff positives - that’s as many as the district saw during all of November and December combined. The highest number in any of the last six weeks of 2021? Five.

SD2 COVID staff positives
40 School District 2 staff members tested positive in the first week of classes in 2022, almost as many as as November and December combined.

And COVID isn’t the only problem.

"Our flu numbers are increasing rapidly," said Kelly Gardner, the communicable disease program manager for RiverStone Health. "So the flu plus the increase in COVID is really concerning."

"If we were smart, we’d wear a mask every winter from now until the end of time," James said. "I know that’s how it’s changed me."

As SD2 Superintendent Greg Upham continues to weigh eliminating the district’s mask mandate, James says he’s been impressed with students’ adherence to the policy.

"Students are mostly really good with masks," he said. "If they slide below their nose, or they wear them on their chin, I just say, 'Look, out of respect for yourself, each other and me, please wear your mask properly,' and they do.'"

Would James continue to teach if masks were only optional?

"I would still go, and I would ask students to mask up, and if they don’t, they don’t - there’s nothing I can do about it," he said.

Darrell James
Darrell James has been working at least three days a week as a substitute teacher in Billings during the 2021-22 school year.

The district hopes most subs would feel the same, with a growing demand and shrinking supply. The district upped its substitute pay in late 2020, from $75 for a non-licensed member and $85 licensed, to $125 and $150 respectively. It’s helped keep the worst-case scenario from happening, so far.

"They’re glad there’s a sub coming in. They're really glad someone's available," James said. "If there’s nobody available, they have to double up classes, and then nothing really gets done the way it should get done."