Exhausted school leaders are scrambling for creative ways to find substitute teachers during the latest COVID-19 surge, which has forced some schools to close temporarily due to staffing shortages.
Some states, including Kansas and Oregon have relaxed requirements for substitute teaching certification, allowing candidates with as little as high school diploma to apply. Others have lowered regulatory hurdles for retired educators to return to the classroom and help out. And some districts have made desperate pleas to parents, college students, and state employees to sign up for substitute teaching slots.
In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday even asked members of her state’s National Guard to step into classrooms. The first governor to take such an action, she said volunteers would receive active duty pay to help keep schools open.
But while new approaches to the shortage have helped ease some difficult days, none of them have met the scale of the crisis, administrators told Education Week.
School leaders around the country said they spend each morning playing musical chairs, moving a scant pool of substitute teachers, volunteer administrators, and central office staff around to make up for teacher absences. Sometimes they combine classes or step into the classrooms themselves to make it all work.
“We just don’t have wiggle room for even an extra two to three teachers to take personal days,” said Tim Sweeney, superintendent of the Coquille, Ore., school district. “There isn’t anyone to call anymore. There isn’t help out there.”
Here are some of the tactics school leaders are using to deal with the substitute-teacher crunch.
Reducing requirements for substitute teaching licenses
Requirements for substitute teachers vary widely by state and district. And some have temporarily lowered or suspended those conditions to help fill the need.
Last week, Kansas temporarily waived the requirement that substitute teachers must have at least 60 hours of college experience, clearing the way for people as young as 18 to serve in classrooms. In December, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed a bill that will allow classified school employees, like bus drivers and school cafeteria workers, to serve as substitutes.
Educators in those states may look to places like Oregon to see if the changes will be effective. In September, that state created an emergency license that allows districts to sponsor adults without bachelor’s degrees to serve as short-term substitutes. In the time since, the state has approved 460 such emergency licenses, which make up about 8 percent of the total number of active substitute licenses in the state, said Trent Danowski, deputy director of the licensing commission.
Sweeney, the Coquille superintendent, has used the flexibility to recruit 17 classified staff members, including current teacher’s aides, to work as substitutes. Some have an interest in becoming full-time teachers, and they also make more as substitutes than they do in their ordinary hourly jobs— about $98 for a 6-hour day compared to $198 for a full day of teaching, he said.
But the solution is far from perfect, Sweeney said. Districts are also short on nutrition workers, front office staff, and school bus drivers, , and sometimes those shortages have sparked school closures. Other employees have to step into those roles when those workers are out or working in classrooms. And, while teachers aides already know the students they work with, having one adult in the classroom instead of two means children go without added support at a time when many need it most.
“No one is jumping up and down for joy that this [licensure change] has happened,” said Sweeney, who regularly fills in as a bus driver and works in the school kitchen. “Really in so many ways, you are robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Calling on parents and college students to meet urgent staffing needs
Some districts have called on parents to join their substitute pool, or to step into other areas where staffing is strained to help keep schools open.
Palo Alto Superintendent Don Austin and his administrative team conceived and launched a campaign called “One Palo Alto” within a few days earlier this month. In a Jan. 9 video, he called on parents to join a pool of volunteers who would help keep schools open, no matter what. He compared the effort to the way the town gathered together in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Within hours of posting the video, 50 people had signed up. By the next morning, 800 had volunteered to do everything from light janitorial work to overseeing lunch duties.
“I have [parents who are] Google engineers, scientists, and people who work for NASA,” Austin told Education Week. “And they are picking up trash and saying thanks for letting them do it.”
Parents can also help alleviate the need for substitute teachers, he said. In some cases, principals will combine two classes under the supervision of one teacher, and an extra adult in the classroom can help keep lessons on track.
Palo Alto has about 10,500 students. On a typical day last semester, the district needed 30-40 substitutes, Austin said. Since the omicron surge, that number is closer to 80.
Schools in other parts of the country have put out calls on Facebook and through letters home asking families to volunteer. Some have even turned to videos on TikTok to help recruit.
“The American school system is set up to involve parents, and we’ve excluded them,” Austin said, explaining his campaign. “The creativity has been gone because every day we are getting a new rule from somebody we have never met.”
Some schools have also made more deliberate efforts to work with nearby teacher-preparation programs to build their substitute pools.
In Illinois, where 96 percent of district leaders reported a substitute shortage in a recent survey, regional education offices have rushed to train short-term substitutes, said Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools.
The state also loosened requirements last year, allowing current teacher education students to serve as substitute teachers.
Tom Sargent, director of teacher education at Monmouth College, worked with local school districts last year to help enlist about 30 of his students to take on substitute roles. Many of those students were already student teaching in those classrooms, but the flexibility allowed them to take over when the primary teacher was absent, he said.
“This has allowed us to provide these opportunities to students and to help out school districts,” Sargent said. “It’s been a win-win for both of them.”
Drafting state employees— and National Guard members— to substitute teach
Under public pressure to take additional steps to keep schools open, governors in Oklahoma, New Mexico, and North Carolina have signed directives allowing state employees to receive paid time off to teach temporarily.
More than half of Oklahoma schools have had to close for a time because of staff shortages this semester, KOSU reported. Oklahoma state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who is running for governor as a Democrat against Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, called the governor’s action “a cup of water on a raging fire.” She called on Stitt to allow schools to implement more precautions, like universal mask requirements, to help slow the spread of the virus. Some local superintendents also said the plan devalued the expertise of trained teachers.
In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper approved Jan. 12 a plan that allows state employees to use community service leave to work in schools. But that plan expires Feb. 15, and some school leaders say it’s not enough to cover the need.
“I do think it’s a nice gesture,” said Kimberly Hager senior executive director of human resource services for Durham schools. “Do I think it’s alright? Yes. Do we need more? Absolutely.”
The district has heard from “three or four” state employees since Cooper announced the policy, Hager said. On a typical day, the district has about 200 teacher absences to cover, and it may only find substitutes for 30 percent to 40 percent of those classrooms, she said.
Other states have called on the National Guard to serve as school bus drivers, but New Mexico is the first to ask them to substitute teach. Guard members and state employees will both substitute under the state plan.
Starting ‘bidding wars’ for substitute teachers, and appealing to retirees
In December guidance to school districts, the U.S. Department of Education said leaders should consider using federal relief aid to raise substitute teacher pay or to offer sign-on bonuses for new recruits.
Hager is skeptical that such a change could help, noting that Durham struggled despite having the highest substitute pay rates in the region. Palo Alto raised its substitute pay from $165 to $185 per day for short-term positions, Austin said, but it soon realized it could end up in a bidding war with neighboring school systems.
“There are districts in the area now paying $300-plus for just a daily substitute,” he said. “There’s a point to where it doesn’t move the needle. You’re just paying more.”
But that hasn’t stopped schools from trying. Montgomery County, Md., schools approved Wednesday a plan to increase pay for certified, short-term substitutes by 8 percent, to $150 a day. The district also plans to offer $60 stipends to subs on high-need days, like those before three-day weekends, when staffing shortages are greater.
Some states have also sought to appeal to retired teachers to take longer-term substitute roles. In Michigan, for example, a law enacted last year allows recently retired teachers to return to the classroom immediately without risking a loss of retiree benefits.
But some administrators say retirees, who have typically made up a significant portion of their substitute teaching pool, are reluctant to return in classrooms, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates, because their older ages put them at greater risk for severe illness.
Longer-term solutions to a growing challenge
Even as leaders rush to address the need for teaching staff, it can take a while for those changes to affect the reality on the ground.
In the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, Kan., district leaders are still exploring how much Kansas’s relaxed certification requirements will help ease workforce burdens, a spokesperson said. Amid climbing virus rates, the district preemptively closed for two days following the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day holiday, citing “dire challenges.”
“Our dedicated principals, teachers, and staff did their best to cover for one another to make sure students could learn, but it was a great challenge,” Superintendent Brent Yeager wrote in a letter to parents.
The current challenges highlight a problem that was building long before the pandemic, said Amanda von Moos, the co-founder of Substantial Classrooms, an organization that advocates for improved training and systems for hiring substitute teachers.
“Across the country, leaders are feverishly working on a moving puzzle, trying to figure out this staffing stuff,” von Moos said. “Every day they solve that puzzle feels to me like a minor miracle, but it’s hard to feel gratitude for something we are used to counting on.”
She estimated that schools could make it work with about 20 percent of teachers absent but, past that, they’ve “maxed out” on what they can do. School systems that have fared better include those with permanent substitute teachers, who draw a regular salary and benefits and float between classrooms throughout the year, she said. Montgomery County, Md., said it would pilot such a program Wednesday.
Other districts have competed against private employers as the country experiences what some have called “the Great Resignation.” And some school systems that have worked to build student support programs to aid with pandemic recovery efforts may have already hired would-be substitutes to work as tutors, teachers aides, or other roles.
In the long -term, school systems would benefit from improving training of substitutes and better integrating them into their regular staffs so they can find the support and autonomy they need to succeed, von Moos said.
“Substitute teaching has been sort of a hidden part of the education system for a while,” she said. “Pre-pandemic, if we are being honest, we didn’t have any kind of systematic approach or investment in making sure it was good learning time. The chief strength of our legacy model was that it kept costs low. I think now we are paying the cost of ignoring this part of education for decades.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Desperate for Substitutes And Getting Creative