As the coronavirus sidelines huge numbers of educators, school districts around the country are aggressively recruiting substitute teachers, offering bonuses and waiving certification requirements in order to keep classrooms open.
Coming to the rescue in many cases are college students who are themselves learning online or home for extended winter breaks.
In Indiana, the 4,400-student Greenfield-Central school district about 20 miles (32 kilometers) east of Indianapolis made a plea for help as its substitute pool shrank. “I said, ’If you’ve got a student who’s in college, maybe they’d like to work even a two-month thing for us - which would be a stopgap, no doubt - but it will help us a whole, whole bunch,” said Scott Kern, the Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation director of human resources.
Over a dozen college students answered the call including his own daughter, 19-year-old Grace Kern, who is studying medical imaging technology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She has been working in elementary school classrooms, helping students as teachers offer instruction remotely via a screen inside the room.
“My dad told me that a bunch of teachers are out and they’re struggling to get substitutes in. And I was like, ‘Well, all my classes are online, except for one, so I have the time to do it.’ And I would hate for the schools and the students to struggle,” she said.
The teaching force already was stretched in many places before the pandemic hit as fewer students entered the profession, and retirees who often fill in as substitutes have been staying home in large numbers because of concerns about their health. As contact tracing forces teachers into quarantine, staffing shortages have become so severe that many schools have had no choice but to switch to distance learning.
In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, appealed late last month to college students who were coming home for their winter break to help in hospitals, virus testing sites – and in schools. In cases where teachers are leading instruction remotely because they have to be in quarantine, for example, Lamont said college students could be paid to come into the classrooms and help provide supervision.
“Look you could binge watch Netflix for three weeks but we have some other ways that you could really be of assistance, helping your entire community get through this pandemic,” Lamont said at a news briefing.
Isabel Orozco, a freshman at Wellesley College, is working as a substitute teacher in the Cheshire, Connecticut district, where she graduated high school in June. She said she’s considering taking all of her spring semester classes online, so she can continue working in the public schools.
“Anything I can do to help, I feel good about,” she said.
College students have been tapped in growing numbers this year by Kelly Education, which contracts with districts to provide substitutes. Company president Nicola Soares said the pandemic has laid bare problems with shortages that have been worsening for years.
“So when I think about the pandemic and everything that we have seen for the past 10 months it has absolutely exacerbated the issue around teacher shortages and also substitute teacher shortages,” Soares said, adding that she doesn’t expect much relief next school year. “We have seen a lot of folks leave the profession. The openings are going to increase, so it is domino effect.”
In South Carolina, Lisa Usry, of Charleston, encountered this firsthand. One of her first jobs of the year was filling in for a teacher in his mid-60s who quit abruptly.
“He worked a couple weeks and said, ‘I’m out of here’ and walked out the door,” she recalled.
In Nebraska, more districts are applying for exemptions to a requirement that substitutes have a teaching certificate. The exemption, once only used by a few large districts, allows administrators to hire subs who have 60 college credits and have completed a teaching course and another that addresses bias and discrimination.
Because the state’s substitute requirements had been so high, it had relied heavily on retirees in years past, said Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association. But it has been a harder sell this year, with the association finding that only 33% of the 500 retired teachers it surveyed in August planned to sub this year, while the others said no or were unsure.
Seventy-four-year-old Pat Shepard, a retired Spanish teacher from of Lincoln, Nebraska, was among those who went ahead and kept working, more even than past years as her district offered bonuses for subs that committed to a certain number of jobs each month. Some of her substitute teacher friends, though, decided to take the year off.
“One she has a father who is 89 with a heart condition and a brand new grandbaby so she is not willing. I’ve had some others who are cancer survivors and things like that. And they are just not willing to take that risk,” she said. “I’m a little bit more concerned now after Thanksgiving because our our cases here are just getting more and more everyday in the city.”
In Iowa, more substitute jobs are going unfilled, even after the state lowered its requirements. In the past districts could manage by dividing an absent teacher’s students among the other teachers in the building. But that won't work in a pandemic, said Coy Marquardt, associate executive director at the Iowa State Education Association.
To get by, some administrators and counselors are being called into action to serve as substitutes, although even that isn’t enough.
“That is one of the reasons why some of the districts went and are still in virtual or remote because they just didn’t have the staffing,” he said.