Since the start of the pandemic, Lutheran pastor Clint Schnekloth has been trying to “lean into where we see the most pressing needs,” he said, which has included helping immigrants and people struggling to make their rent.
Now he’s a substitute teacher.
The Fayetteville, Arkansas, pastor handed in paperwork for a background check in December and watched a brief series of instructional videos, most of them focused on student safety. Two weeks ago, he took his first gig as a high school biology substitute.
The hallway where Schnekloth taught had three biology labs, but teachers were absent in all of them, he said.
The substitute shortage in Fayetteville is the same problem faced by school districts all across the country: Huge numbers of teachers and school personnel are calling out sick, and there aren’t enough people to step in.
“The pandemic introduced me to this issue of schools struggling to get good subs. But it’s been around a long time — and the bar [for hiring] is really low,” Schnekloth said.
No national data is available on teacher absences, but local statistics are striking: One recent day in January, 800 teachers in Hawaii called out sick with covid and another 800 were gone for other reasons — leaving 400 teachers’ desks across the state unfilled after substitutes were called in, the state said. Dozens of other schools across the country have recently switched to virtual learning amid teacher shortages.
Schools are going to need more substitutes if they want to stay open during covid waves. While omicron laid that problem bare, the substitute shortage existed long before the pandemic. Schools lean on teachers to keep regular schedules and for years have operated with shortages of substitutes, in part because underpaying and under-hiring substitutes saves districts money, said Amanda von Moos, co-founder of Substantial Classrooms, an organization focused on improving substitute teaching.
“What’s happened, during the pandemic especially, is that there’s just not enough people who look at [substituting] and say, ‘I want to sign up for that job,’” said von Moos. “Today, job seekers have more and more options, within education and within the larger economy. It’s systemic issues that we’ve had for a really long time that are coming to a peak at this moment.”
Schools are in serious need of more substitutes
In Oklahoma, police officers stepped in to cover sixth grade in mid-January when teachers were sparse. In New Mexico, the governor called in the National Guard to cover for teachers in classrooms — and just days later, announced she herself would sign up to substitute teach.
In Texas, one school district issued a public plea to parents to apply to be substitutes in classrooms early last month. The superintendent of another Texas district in Austin said central office staff were prepared to fill in.
“I may be teaching science or math at a high school classroom,” Stephanie Elizalde, superintendent at Austin Independent School District, told local news.
In some cases, teachers have tested positive for covid and had to quarantine because they were exposed or needed to care for a loved one. Others have taken mental health leave or caught the seasonal flu, people who work with school districts told Grid. Many teachers have reason to be cautious about covid: 1.5 million teachers, or 24 percent of the workforce, have a condition that puts them at risk for “serious illness” if they develop covid, a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found.
Schools are meanwhile under increasing pressure to stay open as states pass laws or executive orders telling school districts to offer in-person classes to students. Despite unions’ concerns about teacher safety, it isn’t just red states who have ordered classrooms back to school. Washington state and Massachusetts are among those where state governments issued orders requiring in-person learning, and Rhode Island worked to keep schools open throughout the pandemic.
Those orders helped assuage concerns that students would fall irrevocably behind in school under prolonged virtual learning. But during a massive covid surge like omicron, some schools haven’t had a choice.
But finding substitute teachers was a challenge even before covid.
A study of an urban school district in the journal Education Finance and Policy found that teachers were absent an average of 11.8 days per school year, while substitute teachers covered 10.9 days — leaving each teacher without coverage for an average of one day. Less advantaged schools in the district typically had less coverage from substitutes than more affluent schools, indicating that substitute shortages affect low-income students more than others.
Despite widespread reports of burnout, labor economists aren’t yet sure if teachers are quitting and creating extra vacancies in the classroom, further exacerbating the need for substitutes. There is also little data about whether substitutes themselves have quit.
Among all public school employees — including support staff and administrators — federal data indicates there’s been an increase in resignations during covid, said Nick Bunker, head of research for North America at the job-search site Indeed. But there isn’t yet data showing if school employees are switching schools, retiring or leaving the profession entirely in search of better pay and less stress.
“We saw a dramatic rise in wage growth in 2021, but we didn’t see much of that in the public sector,” Bunker said. “You could imagine that people working in education could be looking around and seeing what’s happening in other parts of the economy” and deciding to change jobs.
Substitute teaching is high-stress work for low pay
Prior to the pandemic, the average pay for a substitute teacher was $13.84, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, less than the starting hourly pay for a barista at Starbucks. Subbing does not usually come with benefits, professional development or a guarantee of day-to-day employment. It’s also unpredictable: Substitutes show up for a day of work at a new school without knowing where to park their cars, use the bathroom or take a break — then they could repeat the process again, at another school, the next day.
Many schools are reporting that it’s a challenge to hire staff — and substitutes in particular. Last fall, more than three-quarters of school district administrators said they had “struggled to hire” enough substitute teachers, according to a survey by Education Week. Schools were also in dire need of other support staff, with 68 percent reporting problems hiring bus drivers and 55 percent struggling to hire paraprofessionals. The need for teachers was somewhat lower, with 48 percent of districts reporting problems hiring enough full-time educators.
Asked how they’re responding to the shortages, administrators’ most common answer was not that they were changing the role or pay, but that they were “asking current employees to take on additional responsibilities.”
There is no standard training or education required for substitute teachers, and most are not required to have teaching degrees. Some areas have responded to the current shortage by dropping their standards: Oregon temporarily lifted its condition that teachers have a college degree in order to apply, for example.
Other districts have significantly boosted pay or started offering sign-on bonuses that would have been unimaginable in the past.
In Fayetteville, where Schnekloth is teaching, the daily rate for substitutes went from $91 to $120 early this year, he said. In New Jersey, a district outside Newark doubled its pay in December, from $125 to $250 per day.
Higher pay could help schools draw in more substitutes. But some experienced educators and administrators argue schools that want to stay open could also benefit from breaking away from the traditional “20 students and a teacher” model for a classroom — a concept that isn’t often being discussed at the school level.
Schools could try to take advantage of technology and tap more non-teachers to help in classrooms — like local nonprofit employees or Parks and Recreation departments, said Kaya Henderson, former chancellor of D.C. public schools. Certified teachers would still need to teach complicated tasks like reading, Henderson said, but non-teachers could play a supporting role and allow more kids to learn from a certified teacher for parts of the day.
“Certified teachers are incredibly important. And there are also people who are it’s reaching out to kids every day who can support, supplement, complement their work,” Henderson said. “What you can’t say is, ‘Our teaching job is untenable and nobody else can do it but us.’”
“What will happen is, people with means and access will figure out ways to figure this out,” Henderson added. “The most marginal people will be stuck in a system that doesn’t work.”
Something’s got to give
Before the pandemic, a small number of school districts had started to rethink how they approached staffing to avoid scrambling for substitutes.
Central Falls School District in northeastern Rhode Island decided to combat its chronic lack of substitute teachers by creating a one-year fellowship for people who are interested in teaching or have recently graduated with a teaching degree.
The fellows embed at one school, substituting for whichever teachers are out that day. They’re guaranteed employment five days a week and given professional development opportunities throughout the year. The district has started hiring new teachers out of the fellowship pool — making the position yet more attractive in addition to being a résumé boost for aspiring teachers.
Central Falls is a small district, and about a third of its students are English language learners. The district had to be conscious about setting aside money to hire full-time substitutes, said Director of Human Capital Jason Midwood. But while many districts don’t have enough substitutes, Central Falls gets more applicants for its fellowship position each year than it can hire. Anticipating covid absences, the district was easily able to ramp up and hire an additional 10 fellows this year.
“Our pre-covid thinking five years ago has helped us at least get a corps of people in who have helped us keep our head above water,” Midwood said.
That doesn’t mean the district hasn’t had issues. One recent week, more than 100 staff members — around 20 percent — were out of school.
“We still face the same issues as other districts,” Midwood said. “But this has helped alleviate the big pain.”