Before the pandemic, Buck Lake Elementary was like a second home to Mary Gerardi.
When Gerardi’s husband died in 2019, the school rallied around their substitute teacher. She’d worked at the elementary school since 2005, when she first moved to Tallahassee after a lengthy career as a teacher in Palm Beach County.
“It was a place I wanted to be ... I needed it for my mental health,” she said.
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When schools returned to in-person instruction in fall 2020, Gerardi said she fully intended to go back to substitute teaching.
But her sons said no.
They had just lost their father, they didn’t want to lose their mother to COVID-19. Gerardi is diabetic and 77 years old.
“I’m in fairly good health, but I’m in all the categories that could really be deadly,” she said.
Leon County Schools are facing a shortage of substitute teachers because of reasons like Gerardi’s. Most of the district’s substitutes are older, retired teachers, who face a higher risk of COVID complications, and they’re prioritizing their health over employment.
When a school can't find a substitute teacher, administration might have to reassign someone who doesn't normally teach in the classroom. Teachers might also be asked to use their planning period to cover another class, or students might be split up and sent to other classes.
Last week, the district encouraged all schools to ask parents, grandparents and the community to seriously consider becoming substitute teachers.
“We’re just trying to get very creative in increasing the numbers in our substitute pool,” said Superintendent Rocky Hanna.
When Hanna was elected, he increased substitute pay from $10 to $12 per hour. During the pandemic, pay was again increased to $14.
The district also agreed to pay for fingerprinting and training. Applicants, who used to need 60 hours of college credit or an associate's degree to apply, now only need a high school diploma.
At one time, the district had about 500 people in the substitute pool, Hanna said. While the district has hired over 80 new substitute teachers in this last week as a result of their new campaign, it’s not enough.
Scott Mazur, Leon Classroom Teacher Association president, said that while the initiative is creative, it doesn’t prevent or remedy the loss due to the pandemic.
“There’s a pedagogy that goes with all this,” he said, “and we’re in crisis if we’re just trying to find someone to stand in front of the students.”
The low salary isn’t enough to compensate for the high stress and major responsibility of being a substitute teacher, especially when other low stress jobs are paying the same $15 an hour. In fact, the average hourly wage for workers at Walmarts in the U.S. is higher, at $16.40.
Administrators are trying to do the best they can, Mazur said, but he believes this is a public education crisis that needs to be addressed by the legislature. The shortage of substitutes won't be fixed by a raise or waiving fingerprinting fees, it has to do with making education and those who work in it a priority.
“We do a lot of talk about valuing people and respecting them, and ‘we’re not in it for the money, we’re in it for the kids,’ ” Mazur said. “But the reality of paying bills and having a living wage and providing for your family (can) catch up to you.”
Gerardi said the extra money coming in was nice to have, but she's fortunate that she can pay her bills without it.
She misses being in the classroom and the camaraderie with the faculty and staff at Buck Lake. After her husband died, she was grateful to have a job where she had made friends and a place to go to help fill the void in her new life.
She said she feels guilty, especially when she knows the lack of substitute teachers is hurting the district.
“When you’re in a school and they can’t get subs, everyone suffers,” she said.
At the same time, she’s set on staying home: “I just can't take the risk with my health.”
Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Another COVID casualty: Leon County Schools experiencing sub shortage