Ongoing pandemic worsens schools’ substitute teacher woes

Keywords Education / K-12

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.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

One thought on “Ongoing pandemic worsens schools’ substitute teacher woes

  1. Let me share my experience.And this is in regards to finding substitutes in general , not just in this time of COVID-19.
    I started as a district substitute , then a permanent ( one) building substitute teacher and ended as an Instructional Assistant for a township school in Marion County over the course of 15 years. On one side of the coin,I was extremely lucky to work with a principal and vice principal(s) that treated me as a professional in my daily work position but also when I was asked to sub for a class. On the other side of the coin, the district administration didn’t really care much for classified staff in general ( Classified being staff having a non Education degree ) most of the time I was employed by the district.
    Any teacher or assistant getting pulled away from their position to sub is stressful in many ways. I worked resource/special ed. and those kids that I did not see that day generally did not meet their IEP requirements. If a child has an IEP, that plan must be followed. Those small group lessons that were prepared ,as well work from the student’s regular classroom needing extra assistance, would got to the wayside. You don’t catch up.The student loses out academically . As a sub, I was expected to step in without missing a step to make sure the class stays on task, complete lessons and know the wheres and whats of the school day. Thankfully, again, I worked with a staff that worked together to help each other and help the students- because when a classroom teacher is gone, students can struggle with the change even for one day.
    What I’ve described was a generally good working situation. I had been in the building for a number the years, made connections with staff and educated to do the job. However, I know that was not the case for others in similar positions in other schools. So- why can’t school corps./districts hire good quality subs or even Instructional assistants? Primarily , the pay and benefits are low and/or nil for the expectations for the job. Second, classroom management can be difficult. A person has to want to work ( and enjoy being ) with children, be able to manage a classroom and be able to teach/educated enough to teach any number of subjects- at least completion of several years of college. Just like a certified teacher , you leave work drained.
    The past 5-6 years, warehouse jobs have been popping up all around Central Indiana. Many offer starting wages of $14-19/hour, full time hours , benefits and the ease of walking away from work when the shift is done. And it doesn’t require a college degree. Substitute teachers start anywhere from $11-15/hour and they are limited , depending on the school district, of 26-32.5 hours/week. In my district 32.5 hours is considered part time , so many medical/dental/vision/retirement benefits are not offered to those working “part-time”. And if anyone remembers, there was a huge fallout after the Affordable Care Act taking action, with many school districts across the nation not able to afford non-certified staff because benefits were mandated for those working over 26/29 hours/week ( that number may need to be fact checked but the hours now are 30/week I’m sure). A Lafayette, IN school district ended up laying off all their non certified/classfied staff before the start of that school year because they could not afford it. Later on, an exemption was made for schools.
    So where am I going with this? School districts and school boards should make decisions of supporting their certified staff with ample substitutes in-house. Staff that will be there day in and day out. Teachers become sick, have last minute conference calls, need a set of papers copied, an extra hand at recess or in the lunchroom ( as a note, teachers have either lunch or recess duty every day and less than 25 minutes for their own lunch).THe needs are endless. The district did away with permanent building subs ( 1/school) for a number of years. Then 2-3 years ago, they were brought back towards the last half of a school year. They were much needed. And to be honest, it would be a good idea to have at least 3-4 permanent subs per school. Many school districts use Kelly Services to find subs- there must be nice fee attached to that service. Isn’t it sad to think that your children literally have subcontractors being brought into school buildings? Quality employees deserve quality pay and access to benefits that will encourage and enable those that enjoy working in a school setting to stay.You get what you pay for. Quality school districts should find a way to have permanent support staff in each school. This could certainly be an incentive in the current crisis of hiring and keeping high quality certified teachers on staff. And now in this time of COVID -19, the past lack of acknowledgement of how important support staff is,such as substitute teachers , has come to fruition.
    There is no easy answer to this situation.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets in {{ count_down }} days.