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Iowa's dual-language and Spanish immersion programs struggle to find substitutes

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Schools that require Spanish-speaking teachers for their dual language and immersion programs find it difficult to find substitutes regularly, and COVID-19 has complicated the process.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused staffing difficulties in different sectors throughout Iowa, and it has hit one group of educators particularly hard. Dual-language and Spanish immersion programs are having trouble during staffing shortages to find substitutes that can teach in the classrooms.

These programs offer classroom experiences taught almost entirely in Spanish, or in at least more than half of the lessons. But schools with these programs have found they face tough staffing challenges during the pandemic—since substitutes and fill-in educators are preferred to be bilingual to meet students’ needs.

“Subbing especially is just really challenging when there aren't enough subs already and then there aren't enough subs who are also bilingual. It really becomes all hands on deck," Storm Lake Community School District's Multilingual Programs Director Abbey Green said.

The Storm Lake dual-language program is half in Spanish and half in English. A little more than half of the students in the district identify as Hispanic. It's still relatively new, starting in the midst of the pandemic in the fall of 2020.

"With all of the regulations in place around, not having lots of kids together and having them spaced out, it just presented a lot of challenges and a lot of stress, between kids getting sick and teachers getting sick, and sickness really working its way through the community. It was a very stressful year to start," Green said.

And even though there is less student-spread in the classroom, when a teacher must take time off due to sickness or quarantine Green said the program will pull other teachers who happen to be bilingual.

Green said on the days when there are no available substitutes, and neither she nor any other program staffer can step in, the students will just have a school day in English. Although, since Green said that's not ideal, they try to avoid that as much as possible.

My sub list went from two down to one. And so that was very challenging.
Rebecca Gómez, Spanish immersion program, Pella Christian Grade School

But this isn't an option for all of the state's multilingual school programs. Rebecca Gómez directs the Spanish Immersion program at Pella Christian Grade School, where the classes are led entirely in Spanish with zero English interruptions. Gómez said this adds to the complexity of finding proper substitutes during a time when it's common for educators to have to stay home for health reasons.

"People who don't understand immersion education might just say, 'Why couldn't you just put an English-speaking teacher in there?' But then you're wrecking that Spanish-only bubble that students have gotten so used to. You're not teaching their content in immersion, or in the language of focus anymore," she said.

One of the Spanish-speaking educators at Gómez's school actually passed away from COVID-19.

"It was shocking and sad, just because we were losing a trusted member of our community, but also because suddenly my sub list went from two down to one. And so that was very challenging," she said.

Both Green and Gómez said the substitute difficulties highlight a larger issue with having enough Spanish-speaking educators in the state.

"Full time staffing is always a concern. We're always trying to make connections and bring people in and get them comfortable with our community and our program, especially being a rural community," Green said.

Gómez agreed, citing that many of her program's educators come from outside of the U.S. The immigration protocols during the pandemic have made it difficult for teachers to come to the state. One even decided not to come after finding the process too complicated.

One teacher was delayed for so long, the school needed to find a long-term substitute.

"That in and of itself is very difficult in rural small town Pella to find a sub who speaks Spanish and, you know, has training as a classroom teacher. So definitely that part of things is something I think people don't always think about as being an impact of the pandemic," she said.

Gómez said one thing the state can do to help is to make it easier for Spanish-speaking educators to get their license in Iowa. Green is currently trying to reach out and share job opportunities with bilingual students from the state's universities.

Kassidy was a reporter based in Des Moines