Quakertown High School, Quakertown, Pa. (Photo: Quakertown Community School District) Quakertown High School
Quakertown High School, Quakertown, Pa. (Photo: Quakertown Community School District)

With a growing number of teachers and support staff falling ill, the Bucks County district has developed a “yellow alert” virtual learning plan for days when schools aren’t sufficiently staffed.

While the thought of “virtual classes” might panic some, it’s something administrators at the Quakertown Community School District feel is part of prudent planning, as a growing number of teachers and support staff fall ill this winter. 

“It’s intended as a last resort,” said the district’s superintendent, Bill Harner, of the possibility of holding some classes virtually on a given day. “It’s a tool.” Still, he said, “if we can’t safely open a school and provide quality instruction because of teacher shortages, we need an alternative.”

The district has developed a “yellow alert” system in an agreement with the teacher’s union, said Nancianne Edwards, Quakertown’s assistant superintendent, in a letter to families. The alert is initiated by a building principal who believes the school won’t have sufficient staff that day and a virtual learning day will be needed, Edwards said.

“A yellow alert is a day of virtual learning and it’s my hope we do not have to call one for the entire school year. But if we do, we want to be prepared,” Edwards said. 

Teacher and aide shortages aren’t unique to the Upper Bucks County district. Across the region, schools are struggling to keep schools open as educators, substitutes, nurses, and educational aides call out sick or need to stay home to care for sick children.

Whether it’s the flu, the respiratory virus RSV, or the resurgence of COVID-19, the so-called “triple pandemic” is posing challenges for educators. “Masking is not on the table,” the superintendent stressed.

Earlier this month, Harner said, four of the district’s eight nurses were out sick, as well as many teachers and substitutes across the elementary, middle and high school. Special education students are particularly vulnerable to aide shortages, as some of those pupils require a personal aide, Harner noted.

Hoping to address concerns caused by what are anticipated to be ongoing shortages, Quakertown’s school board recently agreed to implement a new program called “floating teachers,” the superintendent said.  The plan will add nine certified teachers to the district’s staff, five at the elementary school and four for the middle and high school. They’ll be assigned to classrooms as needed, depending on absences, with the intention of ensuring all classes are consistently covered. “We’re trying to be creative,” said Harner. 

Long-term substitutes who are not contracted may apply for the new positions, as well as other certified teachers outside the district, said Harner. The floating teacher will become a union member with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. Harner said he expects interviews to begin shortly.

“We’re hoping to get some great new people,” he added.