Indiana school districts’ long-running struggles to find substitute teachers have become more difficult as fears about the coronavirus keep some veteran substitutes away, forcing school staff to fill in more often for absent teachers.
Several states have seen surges in educators filing for retirement or taking leaves of absence amid the pandemic, straining staff in areas that already faced teacher shortages before the virus created an education crisis.
In Indiana, some districts report that substitute teachers are staying away, wary of returning to the classroom at a time when COVID-19 cases are spiking across the state and nation.
Mike Sullivan began substituting for western Indiana’s Vigo County School Corp. in March 2019 after retiring from his job in advertising sales. He found substituting at the middle school level the “perfect” part-time job to fit his circumstances.
But on the recommendation of his doctor, he is not substituting this year because he is at higher risk for COVID-19.
“I would catch it easier than most people would and I would have a harder time surviving,” he said, adding that he misses substitute teaching.
While it’s always a problem for districts to find substitute teachers, the coronavirus has made finding them more difficult, said Terry McDaniel, a professor of educational leadership
Indiana State University. He said that an annual survey of Indiana’s ongoing teacher shortage included “quite a few comments about districts finding subs.”
“You struggle to do that, but now a lot of people who were subbing are saying, ‘I don’t want to walk into a classroom where I can be infected with COVID. It doesn’t pay enough to make it worth my while, anyway. I don’t get benefits,'” McDaniel told the Tribune-Star.
The increased difficulty of finding substitutes is forcing districts to more frequently shift their staffing, with teachers who provide instruction in specialized classes instead being drafted to fill in for absent teachers.
In southern Indiana, Andrew Luther normally teaches technology classes at Clarksville Elementary School, but its substitute teacher shortage means he’s recently been drafted to fill in for absent teachers.
Last Friday, he was pulled from his usual job to substitute for an absent fourth-grade teacher.
“This is the fourth or fifth time this year I’ve subbed, because we just have a lack of people available to sub, so the other special teachers and I and other people in the building come in if someone’s absent, and we cover their room,” he told the News and Tribune.
Mindy Dablow, Clarksville Elementary’s principal, said that when teachers such as Luther are pulled from their usual classes to substitute, that means yet another teacher is losing prep time for the classes they normally would be teaching.
“It has a domino effect when we have to pull someone away from their regular job,” she said.
And when staff have to quarantine, it creates an even higher demand for substitutes, said Jeanine Corson, director of human resources at the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp.
When a teacher has to be quarantined but is not sick, they continue teaching from home, even if students are still in the classroom, Corson said. In that case, the teacher will teach virtually, but a substitute would still be needed in the classroom to manage the class.
“That’s the best education we can give in that situation with a licensed teacher still connected in the classroom,” she said.
If a substitute teacher is not available, the district asks school staff to fill in, whether they are teachers, administrators, counselors or special education facilitators, she said.