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In need of substitutes

U.S. schools struggle to staff classrooms as substitute teachers become harder to find

A student listens to a teacher’s instructions at iPrep Academy on Aug. 23 in Miami. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

In need of substitutes

Before COVID-19, Florida substitute teacher Colleen Guerette, 51, often worked reduced hours from October through April. Substitute teacher “snowbirds,” or retirees who live up north during summer months and return to Florida during winter, were more available during those months.

This year, Guerette says, things are different: “There’s hardly, like, any subs anymore.”

Across the country, school districts are struggling to find enough substitute teachers. It’s a troubling trend in a normal year—but especially during a year of COVID-19 quarantines.

In early 2020, some 8 percent of teacher positions required substitutes every day, and schools were typically able to fill just over half of those vacancies, according to an EdWeek study. Last week, Chalkbeat reported that out of 20 major U.S. school districts, 18 had more vacancies than usual this year. COVID-19 is not the only factor to blame: Burnout and low pay also drive teachers to leave their profession.

In Idaho, a teacher and substitute shortage temporarily closed one small school district. A middle school in Detroit switched to virtual learning after resignations there left too few teachers for classrooms. In California, more than 70 percent of substitutes registered with Long Beach Unified School District have not returned to work this year, and administrators have stepped in to fill dozens of vacancies.

In hopes of meeting the shortage, Iowa has lowered age requirements and ended workday limits for substitute teachers. California’s Chula Vista Elementary School District is asking retired teachers and principals to teach classes. In New York City, teachers’ union leaders warned that the city’s educator vaccine mandate could keep thousands of teachers home. (A judge blocked the mandate’s enforcement last week, but another court ruling on Monday reinstated it. It takes effect on Oct. 4.)

Principal Greg Moffitt at Fairmont Charter Elementary School in Vacaville, Calif., spent hours substitute teaching on Monday—and not for the first time. Last week, Moffitt said, he subbed in multiple classrooms, at recess, and during student lunches due to staff members missing work because of quarantined kids or appointments to attend. He also subbed in a paraeducator position that hasn’t been filled all year. “That meant that teacher observations didn’t get scheduled, parents weren’t able to meet with me about their children until late into the evening, and all the other stuff principals do had to wait,” he wrote in an email.

Moffitt said school district leaders and staffers are also willing to substitute in his school, and the district has raised pay for substitutes. But the shortage means his teachers sometimes have to sub outside of their areas of expertise.

“Our reading intervention teacher … may get pulled to cover a classroom, which means canceling her intervention groups. Our counselor may get pulled from meeting with students to teach part of the day,” he said. “Our PE teacher has had to double up classes or teachers have had to miss their prep.”

In Florida, Guerette taught full-time for more than 13 years in the Martin County and Okeechobee County school districts, mostly in kindergarten classes. But the stress and long hours affected her and her family. She left her teaching position five years ago and began working as a substitute. “I love the kids, and the kids haven’t changed,” she said. “I get to help kids every day … but I don’t have to take it home.”

Guerette works most school days but enjoys the flexibility to take fewer jobs if she wants. She can view and accept substitute jobs on the county’s computerized database. She estimates she regularly used to see 60 different substitute teachers working in Martin County schools. Now she is sometimes the only substitute on a given campus, despite multiple teacher absences.

Many of the substitute teachers she used to see were older, Guerette said, and likely have concerns about catching COVID-19. She also thinks student misbehavior has contributed to lower availability of substitutes.

Guerette tries to follow each teacher’s lesson plan, and she said teachers and administrators are generally very appreciative of her help: “I feel like I’m fulfilling a purpose.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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