Full-time public school teachers across Texas are finagling digital setups to teach classes online, calling to check in on students and their parents, and volunteering to help hand out meals — all while knowing their salaries are secure.
That's not the case for Jennie Minor, a substitute teacher for the Gregory-Portland Independent School District, who has no work and no indication she will be making money teaching again anytime soon. The substitute jobs she had lined up for the next month dried up after schools were closed to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. Her other part-time job caring for a sick older neighbor also vanished after he ended up in the hospital with breathing problems.
State leaders have encouraged school districts to continue paying hourly workers and support staff, including bus drivers, custodial workers, teachers aides and cafeteria workers, while schools are closed. But they have left the details on how much and how long up to individual school boards. And some employees, like a number of substitute teachers who depended on the pay to close financial gaps, are not seeing any money at all.
With schools statewide closed at least through May 4, there's unlikely to be a return to normal this academic year. "I would continue to substitute in a heartbeat if they said we're opening tomorrow," Minor said. "I got my last check last week, and now I'm going to have nothing else."
Many school boards have passed resolutions promising to compensate all staff according to normal pay and work schedules through the end of their closures. The state has promised not to change school districts' funding as long as they keep teaching students remotely, allowing them to continue paying staff without losing money.
Substitute teachers typically aren't paid unless they have an ongoing assignment, such as filling in for a teacher on medical leave, according to Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. But districts are using hourly staff for jobs like handing out packets of academic materials or driving to deliver meals during an unprecedented time.
"The guidance from [the Texas Education Agency] has been consistently that funding won't be cut this year as long as districts complete the year in some form or fashion," Baskin said. "There's really no financial incentive or any other incentive to stop paying hourly wages."
That's a relief for Delano Howard, a custodial supervisor at an Austin ISD elementary school, who went in with his staff to disinfect the building the first day it was closed. Austin ISD paid them time and a half for that work, a decision many districts have made at least temporarily for support staff working during school closures. But the district is only paying substitute teachers who are working, continuing a policy from the regular school year.
Howard financially supports his wife, who is diabetic and has high blood pressure, and his other part-time job as a school basketball referee is impossible since all games have been canceled. "Trust me, if I even lose one day of pay, it affects me tremendously. God forbid a week. It would really cause extreme financial hardship for me and my family," he said.
But for some hourly workers, school districts' promises to continue paying them feel vague and precarious, subject to change as the school closures stretch on. "From a legal perspective, it is conceivable" that school districts could pull back on a commitment to pay hourly workers, Baskin said. "I just haven't heard of a district wanting to do that."
And districts don't want their employees to find other jobs, which could lead to a shortage once schools open again. Magnolia ISD is planning to continue paying employees their regular pay for the rest of the school closure, including additional pay for those required to go into the school buildings.
But Amber Hand, a bus driver at Magnolia ISD in the Houston area, is still nervously attempting to secure other jobs as a backup with her commercial driver's license. So far, she hasn't heard back.
"A lot of us are kind of sitting here going, 'Oh my God, how am I going to make it through this?'" she said. "Everything's being left up to each individual superintendent, each school district. Nobody knows what to expect, if we're going to get paid. A month and a half from now, I might not be able to pay my car note."
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