As Nashua School District continues to struggle with finding and retaining enough substitute teachers for its classrooms, school officials are exploring a potential solution that would eliminate the need for subs at all.
A group of teachers have proposed the idea of creating digital learning centers in Nashua's two high schools where students could gather to complete their schoolwork online.
Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Ray Guarino, a member of the district's Board of Education, which is studying that proposal.
(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)
First, I want to remind listeners of the district's ongoing struggle to have enough subs for classrooms. Why it's been so difficult?
The unemployment rate is low and so people have other options, and it's basically the supply of labor. There's just not as many people out there looking to substitute.
Sure. If you want to go into teaching, you might be looking for a permanent job. And you might be able to find it and you don't need to do the sub work, right?
So I don't know what the timeline is on this, but obviously there's an urgent need. Nashua is dealing with this perpetual problem of not enough substitute teachers.
Yes, they're filling about 60 percent of the absences. In other years when the job market was different and there were more people available, they were filling more between 70 and 80 percent. And now they're down to 60 percent because of the job market.
So what happens on any given day when there's just not enough subs available?
Well they often go into the cafeteria, and then they also use para teachers. Administration has to take time. So they have to retrofit and come up with different alternatives.
So the district is obviously exploring other options. How did this idea for a digital learning center come about?
We actually looked at what other districts were doing. The administration looked at what was happening in different states, and I believe it was Lexington, [Massachusetts] had innovated this. It doesn't eliminate teachers, because students are still supervised by a certified teacher instead of a substitute. Not all substitutes certified. But the students go into an auditorium. It's a much bigger class. And they each have a Chromebook and they already have their assignments from their teachers, and they do independent learning electronically.
So is this much like a kind of a computer lab situation where you would have several students coming in and doing their ongoing work online?
Yes, and Nashua actually has what they call E-Block, which is a period where students can do independent work by themselves to catch up on assignments during the day. So it is very similar to what's actually happening now.
But what are some of the other proposed benefits that a digital learning center would provide?
It does make other subs available for the lower grades, because this is only for high school. So other subs would be available for say middle school or elementary school.
Now this proposal, it's in early days. The district hasn't yet calculated all the costs that would be associated with establishing a digital learning center, but what are some of the investments that the district would have to make? What are the specific things the district has to do to get this off the ground?
The first thing is extra chrome books or tablets, and the other thing would be they'd have to hire a certified teacher. Those would be really the costs associated with this type of system.
What about some concerns you might have or reservations?
My reservations were, and I expressed them at our committee meeting, what I'd like to see is human interaction. I think that's very important for education to have human interaction, and this would be a situation where you have a great many students and maybe just one teacher supervising.
However, a lot of teachers have expressed that they think this is a great idea because it's continuity in their lessons. The way the system is now with substitutes, a lot of times teachers see a to come in and they don't see their lesson plan being fully implemented. So this is a better way for continuity.
And I imagine that like a lot of high schools of course, students are doing more and more of their work online or on a screen anyway?
Yeah, teachers are doing things like this. So there's a lot of electronic learning going on already.