Quarantines Leave Schools Scrambling for Substitute Teachers

By: - December 21, 2020 12:00 am

A Hanover College student works as a substitute teacher at a school in Greenfield, Indiana. Several states have relaxed qualification requirements for substitute teachers during the pandemic. Michael Conroy/The Associated Press

Josephine Brewington has been a substitute teacher in suburban Beech Grove, Indiana, for a decade, but her job has grown in importance as her school district scrambles to supervise pupils whose teachers are sick, quarantining or caring for others.

“We’d have teachers from the high school come over and help teach fourth graders because we didn’t have enough subs,” Brewington said of how the system has handled absences this fall. “People from the offices are helping, principals are covering classrooms—it’s like everyone’s pitching in.”

President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants most schools to be reopened within the first 100 days of his administration, and many city and state policymakers also are pushing schools to offer in-person instruction. They note that the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in schools is low, working parents rely on schools for child care and students are better able to keep up when they’re in classrooms. 

But schools need substitutes, long stereotyped as mere stand-ins, to stay open during a pandemic, and many schools are finding they don’t have enough. In recent weeks, school districts from Nevada to Rhode Island have shifted to remote instruction in part because so many teachers were quarantining, districts couldn’t track down enough qualified adults to cover their classes. 

Take Brookfield East High School, located in an affluent city in the Milwaukee area. It went remote for a week in October because 19 teachers and teaching-certified staff were quarantined (the school employs about 76 teachers). “We just couldn’t cover everything,” said Elmbrook Schools Superintendent Mark Hansen.

It doesn’t help that many districts also are grappling with longstanding full-time and substitute teacher shortages. U.S. schools might be short more than 100,000 teachers, according to a 2016 estimate by the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group with offices in Palo Alto, California, and Washington, D.C.

Before the pandemic, just over half of school and district leaders nationwide said they were able to cover teacher absences with substitutes, according to a survey by the EdWeek Research Center, a research team affiliated with education news publication Education Week, and Kelly Education, a substitute teacher staffing company.

In the short term, states are getting creative. Rhode Island’s education agency has launched a new substitute teacher training program. Governors and education agency leaders in Iowa, Missouri and Nevada have stopped requiring substitute teachers to have earned at least 60 hours of college credits or an associate degree. In Connecticut, substitutes no longer need a bachelor’s degree, and in New York, a teaching degree is no longer needed.

The scramble to cover classes should subside once teachers and school staff are vaccinated. But that could take months. 

“My crystal ball broke on March 12th,” said Hansen. That’s the day Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced a state of emergency because of the coronavirus. 

“I don’t know how fast a vaccination strategy will impact our staffing stability issue,” Hansen said. “It’s too early to tell.” 

In the meantime, schools need more resources, more frequent COVID-19 testing and action by policymakers to drive down community cases—or else educators won’t feel safe at school and will push administrators to shift to remote learning, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers labor union. “The safeguards are absolutely vital, imperative.”

Robust safety precautions create a “virtuous cycle” that can ease staffing problems, she said. “People trust it. You get more substitutes. You get more teachers who agree to be in school.”

Pandemic Plight

It’s unclear whether the pandemic has exacerbated the nation’s longstanding problems with recruiting and retaining qualified teachers and substitutes.

On one hand, some teachers and substitutes have quit because they feared getting sick at work or didn’t want to teach online. But on the other hand, the shaky economy has given teachers a reason to stick it out in their relatively stable jobs.

“While a lot of people have said that teachers are going to be quitting in droves, that’s not been our reality,” said Debra Pace, superintendent of the Osceola School District in central Florida. In her county, the unemployment rate is above 10%. Substitute teachers also were eager to come back to work this fall, she said. 

Patrice Pullen, a substitute teacher in Orange County, Florida, enrolled her two school-age children in virtual classes this year because she felt they’d be safer at home. But she jumped at the chance to get back into the classroom herself, because despite her side gig as a real estate agent, substitute teaching is her main source of income (plus she loves the work, she added). 

When the Orange County School District shut down in March, Pullen applied for unemployment benefits to make ends meet. “I was out of work from March all the way until August,” she said.

In the short term, demand for substitute teachers has skyrocketed across the country as COVID-19 and quarantine rules lead more school staff to take sick days or work from home. 

“The school would literally not be able to function without substitute teachers,” said Pullen, who’s been a substitute for about a year. Right now, she’s supervising 11 high school seniors who must take their online courses while at school, as they were failing to pass assignments at home. Pullen and Brewington both work for the staffing firm Kelly Education.

On some days, almost a fifth of teachers and support staff employed by the small Fremont County School District in Lander, Wyoming, can’t come in to work, said Dave Barker, its superintendent. He said quarantine rules are a major reason, and some staff members have also tested positive for the virus.

When staff absences spike, it’s a struggle to keep the school open. “It’s not just teachers,” Barker said. “It’s substitute paraeducators, custodians, just trying to fill different positions to keep us running.”

Quarantined teachers can use video technology to teach a class that’s meeting in-person. But if the teacher isn’t physically there, the school must find supervision somewhere, through a substitute, a teacher with a break period or support staff with teaching credentials. 

Moving to fully remote instruction reduces the need for substitutes, though it doesn’t eliminate it.

Northern Nevada’s Washoe County School District moved middle and high schools to distance learning this month in part because it was so hard to staff schools, said Emily Ellison, chief human resources officer for the district. 

The district employs more than 3,600 teachers and has a pool of about 1,800 substitutes, Ellison said. But not all 1,800 substitutes are always available; some only want to work a few days a year.

The district aims to add 100 more substitutes to its pool before it resumes in-person instruction on Jan. 18, Ellison said.

Districts Step Up Recruitment

To find those additional substitutes, school district leaders are raising pay and state leaders are offering more job training or lowering hiring standards.

Weingarten called the wage increases a form of hazard pay: “At this point, you’ve got to pay a premium rate for substitutes.”

The Elmbrook School District bumped pay this year from to a day, Hansen said. He’s not sure the raise has mattered, though, as nearby districts also have increased their rates. “We’re cannibalizing each other,” he said. The pay increases also may be making it harder for less affluent districts to compete for substitutes, he said.

At least one state, Rhode Island, has embraced job training as a solution. The Rhode Island Department of Education is using federal coronavirus relief funds to offer free, 10-hour substitute teacher training through the Highlander Institute, a Providence-based nonprofit focused on improving education.

More than 130 people have completed the training, and the state hopes to train another 820, Emily Crowell, communications director for the education agency, said in an email to Stateline. Rhode Island short-term substitute teachers also must hold at least an associate degree or two years of college credits.

Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, New York and Nevada have dropped college credit requirements for substitute teachers, at least temporarily.

Nevada Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed an emergency regulation last month, in place through the end of February, that allows large school districts to hire substitutes who hold only a high school diploma. Previously, only small, rural districts could hire emergency substitutes.

The regulation will allow large districts such as Washoe County, home to Reno, to recruit from a more diverse pool and hire college freshmen and sophomores looking for a part-time job, Ellison said. “We realize that there’s not a direct relationship between success in the classroom and possessing 60 [college] credits.”

Some teachers worry, however, that substitutes hired under the lower standards won’t be prepared to handle a room of stressed-out students.

Nevada teachers “are concerned that all of a sudden, just anybody with a high school diploma can step into this role,” said Clark County Education Association President Marie Neisses, who leads Nevada’s largest educator union. 

It’s unclear whether the recruiting strategies will outlast the pandemic, said Sarah Glover, an assistant director at Education Commission of the States, a Denver, Colorado-based research group that advises state lawmakers.

“Even this question of substitute pay—it’s a great strategy, I think, as far as attracting substitutes. Will it be a long-term strategy, as districts face budget cuts?” she asked. “It’s hard to know.”

Glover said she expects school districts and policymakers to return their attention to long-term strategies for recruiting teachers, such as college scholarships that help teaching assistants earn education bachelor’s degrees and programs that encourage high school students to consider teaching careers.

Back in Indiana, Brewington said that although her husband is older and in a group more likely to develop life-threatening complications from COVID-19, she didn’t feel she was putting him at risk by returning to school because everyone wears a mask and regularly washes their hands, and staff do their best to keep the building spotless.

Brewington’s own children went to Beech Grove schools, and she loves being there for today’s students. “I had kids that were crying when we went back to e-learning,” she said. Her pupils want to be in school with their friends and can struggle to complete online assignments, she said.

“So much learning at school is not on the computer,” Brewington said. “They’re missing that, and they know that.”

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Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.