From interviewing to helping prepare new teachers in the fall, district hiring at Norfolk Public Schools has been affected because of COVID-19.

Mike Hart, director of human resources and accreditation, said that while the pandemic hasn’t affected new incoming staff drastically, it has played a role in hiring, such as decreased applications and numbers for the 2020-21 school year.

The district had about 40 certified new staff members last year, he said. NPS is expecting around 25 for the upcoming year.

“There’s a lot of other factors besides COVID-19 for the lower numbers,” Hart said. “Overall, the trends we’ve seen have been similar to what we’ve seen in the past, maybe amplified a little bit because people are more hesitant to apply or move.”

Hart said he believes COVID-19 had more impact on the number of applications received for each position and the way candidates were hired.

District staff had to conduct Zoom interviews instead of meeting in person because of social distancing guidelines. Candidates also couldn’t visit their potential building assignments or meet potential coworkers, something that might have influenced a teacher’s decision.

“This is a people business; to be in the same room as someone, connect with them, look at their body language — we miss that,” Hart said. “And to not have that back-and-forth dialogue, that’s a challenge. We have also missed out on some recruiting opportunities, like career fairs. We just want to make sure we’re staying safe.”

The number of applications the district has received per position also has decreased, Hart said. People are tending to stay closer to home instead of move to a new location for a job because of COVID-19.

Sara Jones won’t have to go far as a new incoming teacher this fall, but she is apprehensive about starting her teaching career during a COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

The Norfolk resident, who was previously a paraprofessional with NPS for four years, will be teaching first and second grade at Lincoln Montessori Elementary for the 2020-21 school year.

“I’m overwhelmed, but excited of course,” Jones said about the upcoming year. “But you are never taught to prepare to teach this way; we’ve never had to do (remote learning) before. Hopefully, we can be in school buildings, especially since I’m teaching little ones. ... that’s not how they learn.”

Jones was able to interview in person and visit her potential classroom before buildings closed because of COVID-19. Meeting district staff in person was really important, she said.

“I can’t imagine only doing an interview virtually,” Jones said. “It’s already nerve-wracking; then you worry about all the things that can go wrong -- if you lose your internet, if you have a family at home.”

Jones said she started online training last week along with returning teachers to begin preparation for the fall. NPS ended the school year early by one week to provide returning staff with more online professional development and training for the upcoming year.

New staff members were allowed to join, but it wasn’t required, said Beth Nelson, director of teaching and learning. Incoming teachers will have official training for three or four days in August. If the school year doesn’t resume as normal, the training will have to be virtual.

“About half of the time is talking through procedures and protocol and some basic understanding about how the district operates; the other half of the time they get acclimated with building,” Nelson said. “Everybody, including new teachers, is going to have new things we’re going to have to learn. For example, day-to-day operations are going to be impacted by an increased sensitivity to sanitation, healthy distances. … It’s going to impact school for everyone.”

Teachers will receive training specifically related to remote instruction, Hart said. Incoming teachers also will work with other similar returning staff to get acclimated.

Hart said while there are a few certified teaching jobs still open, the number is normal and the jobs are usually in hard-to-fill areas like math, science or technology. If a position isn’t filled, NPS will utilize substitute teachers or other staff.

The district also hasn’t started hiring paraprofessionals for the 2020-21 school year — that will take place during a para job fair later this summer, Hart said.

“I feel like if we can open normally to get back to a physical presence in the schools, I think we will have a pretty good pool of people who will want to work for schools,” Hart said. “But it will look different because of social distancing. We are doing everything we can to make sure our new staff has all the tools and info to be as ready as possible when we get back to working with kids in the fall.”

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