Low Pay and High Risk: Being a Substitute Teacher During COVID-19

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For all educators, the start of this school year will be daunting. But for substitute teachers, there are, in many ways, even more question marks.

School districts are increasingly choosing to start the school year remotely, which could reduce the need for short-term substitutes. But for districts that are doing in-person instruction at least some days of the week, substitutes will be in high demand. There’s already a substitute shortage in many places. And with precautions in place that ask teachers to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure and stay home with any mild symptoms, administrators are expecting to need a long roster of substitutes.

Yet many substitutes—in particular, those who are at high-risk for complications from COVID-19—are weighing the costs of going back: Doing so means they’ll be exposing themselves to a great number of people, under inconsistent safety protocols, and for little pay and potentially no health benefits.

“Substitute teachers [are] going to be stepping into a classroom usually because somebody’s sick,” said Amanda von Moos, the co-founder and managing director of Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit focused on improving substitute teaching. “The biggest question on everybody’s mind—what I would call an unspoken question—is who is going to be comfortable stepping into that situation? And what would help somebody be comfortable stepping into that situation?”

Even for the school districts that are choosing to start the school year remotely, there are still big questions to be figured out. In the spring, as schools abruptly shuttered and teachers quickly pivoted to remote learning, substitute teachers were largely sidelined. Many districts stopped paying their day-to-day substitutes.

A district spokesman said substitutes will have access to the same professional development on remote instruction that full-time teachers are going through now.

Health Concerns

Von Moos said the average age of substitute teachers varies from district to district. In some communities, most of the substitutes are retired teachers. In others, they're mostly parents of school-age children. Recent college graduates who are looking for their first teaching job often turn to subbing, too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that individuals older than 65 are at higher risk for COVID-19, as are those who are immunocompromised or have other underlying health conditions, including diabetes. People with conditions like asthma, pregnancy, or high blood pressure may also be at increased risk.

For Marvin Goetz, a long-time substitute teacher in Fort Myers, Fla., and the president of the Lee County Association of Professional Substitute Teachers, the choice on whether to return to the classroom was clear: He’s 86 years old, and his wife is in poor health. He left the classroom in December, when he heard of the coronavirus outbreak in mainland China, after 25 years of substitute teaching and six decades in education altogether.

“I don’t want to bring anything home,” he said. “When you’re working with children [in elementary and middle grades], none of them have a hanky. And you know what they do, they wipe their noses on their sleeves—and what better way to spread a virus.”

These concerns are echoed by substitutes across the country. Angela Nottingham, a 7th grade social studies teacher in Huntington, W.Va., said choosing a long-term substitute to fill her classroom while she’s on maternity leave this semester was challenging. She had to pick from a pre-approved list, but many were retired teachers who are at high risk and didn’t want to come back. At least one younger substitute said she couldn’t take on a long-term assignment because of child-care challenges brought on by the coronavirus.

Another told Nottingham that she wasn’t doing this job for the money, and her love for substituting didn’t outweigh the potential health risks.

“I sub because it’s something I enjoy doing, but I don’t want to do this long-term and be committed to this and then get sick,” the substitute said, as Nottingham recalled.

Meeting the Demand

Even before the pandemic, many districts reported difficulties finding enough substitutes to fill teacher vacancies. But this fall, the demand for substitute teachers has skyrocketed, said Nicola Soares, the president of Kelly Education, which partners with school districts across the country to provide staffing.

Some larger districts are asking Kelly Education to double or triple its pool sizes of substitute teachers, alongside temporary food and nutrition workers, school nurses, and secretarial staff, she said.

Even though some substitutes say they’re unwilling to go back, Soares said she thinks there will be enough people to fill the positions. The national average unemployment rate is just over 10 percent, and some of those workers might be interested in subbing. For instance, she said, someone who was laid off from a STEM career would be a “wonderful candidate” to teach a science or math class.

Also, Soares said, some graduating high school seniors or college students might want to take a gap year or a leave of absence from college, given the pandemic and the possibility of classes going online. Those people could serve as substitute teachers for a year, she said. About half of states, including Florida and Georgia, only require substitutes to have a high school diploma, according to Kelly Education’s data.

In Downers Grove, Ill., Janice Schwarze, the principal of North High School, is expecting to have a substitute shortage this year, as her district plans to have students come to school some days and learn from home the others. It’s hard to find enough substitutes in normal years, she said, and many of her usual substitutes are retired teachers.

Schwarze also expects that she’ll have a higher volume of teacher absences because if a teacher is showing any symptoms of COVID-19, such as a cough or sore throat, she will have to stay home out of caution. Before the coronavirus pandemic, teachers would often come to school with mild ailments, she said.

To help fill those gaps, Schwarze is reassigning some school staff members–like one-on-one paraprofessionals or the director of the testing center—to serve as teachers’ assistants. If a teacher is well enough to teach remotely, he or she will teach from home via webcam while the teacher’s assistant supervises and monitors behavior in the classroom.

Also, Schwarze told school administrators not to schedule meetings in the mornings, because they’ll likely have to jump into a classroom to fill any unexpected vacancy.

“Everybody will be pitching in,” she said.

Limiting Exposure

Personal relationships and clear communication will be critical pieces of recruiting substitutes this school year, Substantial Classroom’s von Moos said. Substitutes need to feel confident that they will be kept in the loop with health and safety protocols.

“In our research, all the positive stories come back to when there’s a strong relationship because a sub works frequently with a school,” von Moos said. “I think this moment is really an extreme version of that: What are the campus norms around health and safety? … You need to trust a school if you’re going to go in.”

To help substitutes feel more comfortable going to work, districts should assign them to a specific school, von Moos said, adding that this is best practice even in non-pandemic times, as it helps substitutes build stronger relationships with the students and faculty. But now, it will help reduce the number of people a substitute is exposed to over the course of a work week.

“I am concerned about having to go into a bunch of different buildings—I don’t want to be working in a different building every day,” said Allie, a substitute teacher in Missouri, who asked that her last name be withheld.

She already has a long-term assignment lined up, but when that ends, she will only accept jobs that are in one school building to limit her exposure to others. That could be a financial hit if daily jobs are not available in that school, she said, but it’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make in order to protect herself.

In some places, substitutes work for multiple districts in a metro area. Maddie Fennell, the executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said different districts in the same city have different policies on masks—some require them, some don’t. That adds an extra layer of uncertainty and risk for substitutes, she said.

Another point of concern: In many districts, substitutes don’t receive health insurance or paid sick days. The national average daily pay rate for substitutes is about $100, but that varies by district and region. Kelly Education’s Soares said in the Northwest, the average pay rate is about $130 a day, while districts in the Southeast pay closer to $88 a day.

Increasing pay could entice substitute teachers to return to work this fall, she said.

“We need to be thinking of substitute teachers as essential workers—they're doing the same job as teachers,” Soares said.

However, that might not be in the budget for many cash-strapped school districts, which are having to lay off teachers as they grapple with both budget cuts and extra expenses for safety precautions.

Learning Curve

Already, 17 of the country’s 20 largest school districts have chosen to start the school year remotely, according to EdWeek’s database. Those districts probably won’t need as many day-to-day substitutes as in previous years, von Moos said. Teachers might not need to take as many absences if they’re working remotely, and they could also set up students to do independent work for a day or two.

But von Moos said she expects districts that are fully remote will still need medium- and long-term substitutes—and those educators will need to be trained in remote instruction.

Forty-four percent of administrators and school board members say their districts don’t offer any professional development to their substitutes in normal school years, according to a nationally representative survey that was conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in December and January and sponsored by Kelly Education.

“How do we help subs be able to do this if we’re all learning?” von Moos said. “The challenges are enormous.”

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