The scheduled substitute at S.S. Seward Institute called out sick on Monday, April 4. No one else was available to cover, so Florida UFSD Superintendent Larry Leaven pulled up to the school first thing in the morning: “I arrived and I said: ‘Ok, where am I teaching?’”
But a school clerk found a different solution, putting Leaven on standby. The district’s director of instructional services ended up teaching social studies that day.
“Our pool is so limited,” said Leaven. “There are difficult days, for sure.”
An absence of substitutes
Students returned to their classrooms at the beginning of the year, but many staff members did not – from bus drivers, to custodians, to subs.
The roster of substitutes at Goshen Central School District has “declined significantly,” said Superintendent Kurtis Kotes. “Pre-pandemic, it certainly was not as big of an issue. Now it’s 10 times the issue that it was.”
For some, picking up the occasional sub shift wasn’t worth potentially contracting COVID-19, or the five-day quarantine that came with exposure, explained Kotes. Others took advantage of the job market to find new gigs. And new college grads who would normally work as subs while applying for teaching positions were landing full-time jobs straight out of school.
“Schools can have a list of substitutes – they could have 100 substitutes signed up with them – but that doesn’t mean they’re going to accept the job when it comes across in the morning,” explained Hardyston’s Chief School Administrator Mike Ryder. “Our list was always long, it’s just that people weren’t coming in.”
With fewer subs willing to answer calls, and more educators absent for extended periods of time due to COVID-19 quarantine guidelines, districts struggled to keep classrooms staffed throughout the year.
“I think every district in all the land is experiencing it,” said Matthew Kravatz, Monroe-Woodbury’s assistant superintendent for Human Resources. “We don’t know what it’s going to be like day-in and day-out. And given COVID... every day is certainly an adventure.”
When there are no substitutes available to cover a class, teachers and faculty are the second line of defense. Building admins scan the schedule of classes to see who could use their prep or lunch periods to cover “and, almost – I hate to say it – beg those people to try to help sometimes during the day,” said Kotes.
And while teachers are paid more to cover during their free periods, shuffling staff throughout the building isn’t ideal. If one absence requires five classes to be covered throughout the day, five different teachers need to use their prep periods to cover.
“The students don’t end up getting consistent instruction, obviously,” said Ryder. “And then the teachers are just running from start to finish throughout the whole day. And that can really wear them down after months and months of doing that every day.”
And all those teachers are not spending their prep time as they normally would, meaning they end up bringing home more work than planned, added Kravatz.
But when there are so many teachers out sick or sidelined by quarantine regulations, and no subs to fill in, schools start combining classes. During a community forum in March, Pine Bush High School principal Aaron Hopmayer described having to pack up to 200 kids into the auditorium because there was not enough staff to cover multiple teacher absences.
And while some districts haven’t gotten to that point, it’s still on the back burner as a last resort. “Luckily, we didn’t have to do that,” said Ryder, adding, “it’s a viable option. Kids need to be supervised, and ideally, educated. But if you can’t, you still have to supervise them.”
Most local districts increased their subs’ daily pay rate in an attempt to lure them back. Monroe-Woodbury is now offering certified substitutes $125, up from $100. “From a price point, we’re paying a more competitive wage than some other places,” added Kravatz.
Because subs tend to work for multiple districts, schools were motivated to raise their rates higher than others in hopes that their shifts will be chosen over others.
Newton and Hardyston are now paying $150, up from $95 and $100, respectively. For Hardyston, a smaller, K-8 district with approximately 600 students, raising wages to $150 – a 56 percent increase – effectively fixed their sub shortage.
“We went up more than others in our surrounding area by $25,” said Ryder. “Because other [districts] were going to $125, we went to $150, and it’s worked out great, not just to have coverage, but even for teacher morale.”
But for others, raising pay wasn’t enough. Monroe-Woodbury, which has over 6,500 students and 1,200 employees district-wide, found some relief when college students were home subbing during their winter break.
But it was short-lived. “I think we all cried at the end of January when we realized they were all going back to school,” said Kravatz, half-joking.
For a more permanent solution, the district ended up hiring 10 full-time substitute teachers at the end of December to work the rest of the school year. They’re all certified teachers, and get paid $275 daily with benefits. With 600 teachers to cover, they’re needed every day.
And sometimes, even with the increased wages, a list of over 125 substitutes, and 10 full-timers on staff, the district still struggles to find adequate coverage. After spring break, there was a spike in absences after family gatherings. And nowadays, “Even with spring allergies... people are being more cautious,” said Kravatz. Teachers are much more likely to call out sick with a cold today than they were pre-pandemic.
Staffing trouble beyond subs
The substitute teacher shortage is just the tip of the iceberg. Like every other industry, nearly every school department is struggling to find enough help.
Many districts struggled to find enough bus drivers to get kids to and from school every day. In Pike County, Penn., a wave of COVID-19 infections among the Delaware Valley School District’s drivers forced schools to close on December 7.
Part-time positions, like teacher’s aides, custodial staff, and cafeteria workers, have been particularly hard to fill. To help serve over 2,000 lunches every day, some high schoolers who have completed culinary courses at Monroe-Woodbury are working in the kitchen, volunteering their study hall time.
Schools are also struggling to hire enough nurses and substitute nurses. “You have one nurse per school, and then what happens when that nurse has to quarantine?” said Ryder. “If you don't have a nurse, you can keep your school open, but it’s very challenging to do it, and you’re taking a gamble a little bit – and a lot of us don't want to take that gamble.” Hardyston and Franklin share a substitute nurse between districts for added support.
“It’s very, very stressful when you don’t have all of your players on your team that day,” explained Ryder. “It’s tough when you’re short teachers, you don’t have a nurse. It’s very tense.”