Math coach Jennifer Faber's role is to provide lessons and support for elementary students who need extra help.

So far in 2022, however, she's only spent three days doing that work full time because she's so often drafted to substitute teach for portions of the day.

"We are being pulled in 110 different directions," said Faber, who provides math support in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district. "There's a lot of cutting and pasting in our lesson plans or drawing arrows to move them to different days. … We're doing everything we can, but it's really, really hard right now."

The latest wave of COVID cases has exacerbated staffing shortages and forced schools across Minnesota to fill in the gaps with any school employees with a teaching license —including administrators and math and reading interventionists — when subs are needed. And fixing that problem creates another, education leaders say.

Many of these new positions were created this year with millions of dollars in federal relief money aimed at helping struggling students recover skills lost during distance learning. Relying on such specialists to fill other staffing holes means the students who need the extra support are often going without it.

"It's a phenomenon we're seeing, but it is all in an effort to try to maintain in-person learning for our students," said Deb Henton, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. School leaders are weighing their options daily, she said, and deciding if it's better to have a dozen classes in an auditorium with a single teacher or to pull the literacy and math coaches away from their teaching plans to serve as classroom subs.

The St. Paul school district has allocated about $33 million of federal relief funds — $11 million per year for three years — to pay for dozens of math and reading specialists as a part of a strategy called "What I Need Now," or WINN. That program includes 54 reading specialists at the elementary level and 15 in the middle schools, as well six teachers on special assignment to help teach reading and six to teach math skills.

The district has tried hard to protect the time of the specialists for the youngest grades, said Maijue Lochungvu, the assistant director with the St. Paul school district's office of teaching and learning. But that's become harder in recent months.

"The shortage has been crazy, and everybody is on the table for subbing," she said.

In a virtual hearing hosted by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum last week on how cities, counties and schools are using federal pandemic relief funds, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard testified about the WINN program and acknowledged the challenges the specialists face.

"It's been really difficult for us to stick to this plan because we're not out of this pandemic yet," Gothard said, adding that district leaders couldn't have predicted the extent of the current staffing challenges when the plan was approved last year.

In general, using the federal funds to pay for substitute teachers is an allowable expense, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Alecia Pankratz, a reading interventionist at Anoka High School, wishes she had more time to work with more students. She's one of four reading specialists in the district's high schools. Each of those two-year positions are funded by federal relief money, as are eight math specialist positions in the high schools. In total, the district is spending about $5 million for such specialists across all grades.

In the fall, Pankratz started working with small groups of students but found they weren't willing to share their struggles in front of their peers. She's now working one-on-one with about 35 sophomores who see her once or twice a week for half-hour sessions.

But twice a month, she spends her day substituting in the district. Plus, she covers for a couple of class periods each week at the high school. That all adds up to less time she's able to sit down with students who need extra help.

Plans can also be disrupted when other teachers are absent because she bases her lessons on what students are learning in their core classes, which might change if a teacher is out sick.

"I'm constantly problem solving," Pankratz said. "But these are all problems worth solving, and you just have to have the mindset of, 'This is just how it is now.' "

District data showed an increased need for literacy intervention after distance learning, said Julie Scullen, a teaching and learning specialist for Anoka-Hennepin schools.

"The need has always been there, but now it's grown," she said.

The other issue, Scullen and Pankratz said, is that high school students don't want to call attention to themselves when they're struggling, making it all the more important to have instructors who identify and support students outside the traditional classroom.

On one recent morning, Pankratz sat down with a student who was stuck on a few assignments, feeling too overwhelmed to know where to start. Within 15 minutes, the student had a breakthrough. By the time she left Pankratz's office, she was smiling and joking.

"These positions are important because they provide a safe environment for students to process through some of their challenges in ways they won't do in a classroom of peers," Pankratz said.

Faber agrees. That's why she wishes there were more specialists to offer focused support. Getting pulled in multiple directions means she has less time to build meaningful relationships with students.

"A coworker said to me, 'At some point, you have to say no to some of these things,' so I'm working on that," Faber said. "But it's hard when you know kids need you in all these places."

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.