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HUNTINGTON — One hundred calls, sometimes double that, come into the Cabell County Schools Central Office every day. They need substitutes.

To fill the demand, the board office searched for solutions and found relief that was already sitting in classrooms across the district — student-teachers.

“We knew what we were doing,” said Marshall student-teacher Victoria Blankenship.

“It was exciting because all of the sudden we’re in different schools across the county, and it’s on us now. We’re using everything we’ve learned so far and taking it into the classroom.”

Blankenship, a senior and soon-to-be graduate, learned of her student-teaching placement before the school year began. She was in a classroom at Cabell Midland High School but now finds herself in many different schools because of a change in policy from the state Department of Education allowing student-teachers to serve as paid substitutes due to widespread absences tied to the ongoing pandemic.

According to school officials, the Cabell County school district is receiving between 170 and 220 requests for substitutes on a daily basis, an average of nearly 50 more per day than in the 2019-20 academic year.

“Our substitutes have stepped up and helped us tremendously. It has been an interesting year full of challenges, but to this point, we’ve met those and come out on top,” Assistant Superintendent Tim Hardesty said. “We are trying to afford the release to teachers as they need it as it pertains to the virus, while still providing a quality education to our students, which is our goal every day.”

Hardesty, who oversees the District Support and Employee Relations division at the central office, said the county has a growing list of substitutes available for both professional and service positions.

On the professional side, Marshall students account for 13 of more than 300 substitutes on the county’s calling list. Most have found work more often than not, Hardesty said, although not all eligible subs work daily.

“I’ve only been in my content (area) twice,” said student-teacher Hannah Caldwell, a Marshall senior specializing in English language arts, “but it’s been a good experience to see how other teachers run their classrooms in other content areas.”

Professional substitutes are utilized in classrooms, such as teaching positions, whereas service personnel include cooks, custodians, classroom aides and other specialty positions. The need for subs is significant in both classifications, Hardesty said.

At the latest meeting of the Cabell County Board of Education, school officials reported that more than 700 employee absences related to the coronavirus and requiring a substitute teacher had been filed into the system.

The school district is dealing with a record number of absences and heavily relying on its substitute list to fill those positions — as many as it can — each day.

The list is comprised of retired teachers, others seeking full-time work and, for the first time, Marshall University students.

Teresa Eagle, dean of the Marshall University College of Education and Professional Development, said the decision to include students as subs was made in an effort to keep “reasonably qualified” teachers in the classroom to “keep students moving forward.”

“When we talk about the use of our students as substitutes, we’re talking about students who have had a good bit of training,” said Eagle. “They are on the edge of being fully certified, and consequently this was a really good option for the schools.”

Hardesty said Marshall students have been a great asset in a dire time of need.

“We have some great student-teachers this year who have walked into the classrooms as subs to teach and are doing a fantastic job. It’s an unusual thing to happen, but they are having success and it’s a great thing to see,” he said.

Caldwell said if there’s one thing she’s learned this semester, it’s how to be flexible, and in a semester unlike any other in recent memory, she feels even more prepared for her future.

“Being able to do my student-teaching in a pandemic and get out in the real world has given me the confidence to tackle any other problems or challenges that come my way throughout my career,” Caldwell said.

Thirteen such Marshall students are serving as substitutes in Cabell, but the university has a wider reach outside of its “home” county, Eagle said. Some students applied and were approved as substitutes in Wayne (8), Kanawha (2), Putnam (2), Mason (1) and Webster (1) counties.

“It is a great experience for our students to be able to go out and do this,” added Eagle.

A total of 765 absences from Cabell County employees came in under county codes 43 and 44 — new to this academic year — which are reserved for absences related to the novel coronavirus. These codes are used both for individuals who have tested positive and those who are required to quarantine because of potential exposure.

The numbers by themselves can be easily misconstrued, Hardesty explained, referring to the number of absences listed as compared to daily requests for substitutes. In order to be listed as a COVID-19-related absence, the teacher must use designated sick leave and not engage in teaching virtually from home.

If a teacher is absent from the classroom but engaged in virtual meetings and instruction, while a substitute is still required for the classroom, that instance is not included in the COVID-19-related absence count.

For Blankenship, stepping into classrooms and teaching in content areas she wasn’t necessarily familiar with was a nervous leap of faith, but the team-oriented approach in schools throughout the county made it easier to land on her feet.

“That’s just how Cabell County runs. That’s how their schools work — it’s team based and team focused. There was someone willing to help me every step of the way,” Blankenship said.

Eagle said the teacher shortage dates back far before the pandemic, but added that she doesn’t expect the allowance of student-teachers to serve as substitutes to last longer than the temporary changes made at the state level.

“The concern going into this was that they weren’t getting the full (educational) treatment, that they were being shorted a few weeks of experience. Given that it is an emergency situation, some things you just have to deal with,” Eagle said.

Still, she believes the current setup is a win-win for county school systems and Marshall University students, and that students are learning more now than they would have in a traditional preparation program, specifically in regards to virtual and distance learning.

“Because teachers haven’t really had to do that, our preparation programs haven’t spent a great amount of time talking about teaching virtually,” Eagle said of the curriculum at Marshall.

“We’re going to have to step up our game in the future as well and provide our students as they come through the program with training on this.”

Luke Creasy is a reporter

for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @HDcreasy or reach him by phone at 304-526-2800.

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