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Staff file Photo by Ben Benton / Catoosa County Public Schools Superintendent Denia Reese is just one of many education officials in North Georgia struggling to staff schools amid a COVID-related substitute teacher shortage.

Catoosa County Schools in Georgia is using staff members who do not have full-time classroom assignments, such as counselors and media specialists, to cover classes amid a shortage of teachers.

Superintendent Denia Reese said COVID-19 is to blame for the shortage.

"Due to positive employee cases and quarantines, we need more substitutes than in a typical school year. Many of our substitute teachers are parents of children in our schools," she said. "Due to students being home due to testing positive and/or being in quarantine, these parents are not available to substitute."

Reese said schools in the county were seeing such a high number of teachers and staff testing positive for the virus and subsequently needing to be quarantined before the district switched to its three-week COVID mitigation schedule that it was "very challenging" to find substitute teachers to supervise classes and maintain school operations.

(READ MORE: Dozens receive Regeneron treatments for COVID-19 in Dalton, Georgia)

In nearby Walker County Schools, personnel director Heather Holloway said many of the district's most reliable substitutes are retired teachers and parents who are hesitant to come into work because of COVID-related fears.

Others have to stay home to take care of their own children during quarantines or sickness. Overall, she said the district is having only about half of its overall substitute needs filled on a daily basis.

The result, she said, has been schools operating from an "all hands on deck" approach. Para-professionals are supervising classrooms. Teachers are covering other people's classes during their breaks. Sometimes, when a teacher has to quarantine from home, someone will be sent to monitor the classroom while class is taught remotely.

Adapting has been the name of the game.

"Our main focus is to keep everyone safe and well, but also to allow instruction to continue smoothly wherever possible," Holloway said. "It is a team effort. We are really thankful for the staff we have working in our schools. It's amazing what they have done to take care of each other and the students. That said, you know, I understand why some people aren't comfortable at this time. Some of them have told us they will return to subbing after COVID and we are happy to hear that. We will put them right back on our list because we do need substitutes."

Dalton Public Schools, Whitfield County Schools, Murray County Schools and Calhoun City Schools are all reporting similar substitute teacher shortages.

Calhoun City Schools Superintendent Michele Taylor said she is in touch with educators all across the state who have all been struggling to staff their schools since COVID-19 first hit. School systems are making it work, she said, but it is not without its challenges. Every person in the school may be asked to do something that isn't a normal part of their duties. It has become an expected part of teaching during COVID, she said.

"Teachers are rising to the challenge of it. We're very blessed because we have educators who love these kids and their community and are dedicated to coming in every day and making sure things get done," Taylor said. "It's a huge problem everywhere right now."

The Northwest Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency, which services 16 regions across the state in partnership with the state Department of Education, is offering additional substitute teacher training this year for those interested in pursuing a position. Taylor said the extra training is a direct result of the shortage being reported across the state.

"This is a problem we're all trying to tackle because we want to keep people in face-to-face instruction as long as we can," she said.

Training is scheduled for Sept. 8, Sept. 15 and Sept. 22 from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. It costs $50 to participate in a training session, regardless of service agency membership. Registration is required and can be completed online at nwgaresa.com. After potential substitute teachers complete the necessary training, they should check with the school district they'd like to work in about any additional requirements.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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