A substitute teacher shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, low pay and rising challenges that include students’ bad behavior has school administrators throughout the state scrambling to cover classrooms.
“If you’re looking at $80 a day in an unpredictable environment, you’re less likely to say ‘yes,’” Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias said last Monday.
Plainville Superintendent Steve LePage said the dearth of subs has amplified stress among staff.
“We are having a very difficult time finding daily and building substitutes, along with long-term subs to fill teacher absences. Absences are also quite high for a number of reasons, which compounds matters,” LePage said. “We almost never have enough subs on most given days, and that has resulted in tension and challenges with other staff needing to pick up some of the coverage in emergency situations.”
Some teachers have been coming to work sick to avoid adding duties to their colleagues’ already heavy burden, Dias said.
“It’s an unhealthy situation,” she said.
Glastonbury Superintendent Alan Bookman said the district has uncovered classes every day.
“We are putting (paraprofessionals) and tutors in the rooms to cover, leaving less support for students who need it,” Bookman said. “Fortunately, on Fridays, we have many college students without classes who are now coming in to substitute.”
Finding long-term subs for teachers on family and medical leave “is very challenging also,” Bookman said, “since many teachers who would be available have taken full teaching jobs.”
“Like almost everywhere else,” Manchester Superintendent Matt Geary said, “we are struggling to secure enough subs. We are working closely with our provider and also have many employees, including teachers, paraprofessionals, tutors, behavior techs and security staff covering classes.”
Geary said those individuals get paid a differential to cover classes.
Other districts have hiked subs’ pay and offered sign-on bonuses. Plainville raised its rate for daily substitutes from $85 to $95 last year, but is still struggling.
“We are now moving up to $100 per day to keep up with rising minimum wage rates and to attract more help,” LePage said.
The district is paying extra for additional degrees, too, offering $125 a day to building substitutes with a college degree and $150 for those with a teaching certification.
“We hope that we are able to attract and retain more subs with these increased daily rates,” LePage said. “With some districts paying larger bonuses, it becomes a case of borrowing (or robbing) Peter to pay Paul, and could lead to ill will for districts trying to retain staff in a much more competitive arena.”
One of the key pools for substitutes is retired teachers, and many of those older people have chosen not to expose themselves to health risks during the pandemic. Also, low pay continues to be a barrier. When she started as a substitute 23 years ago, Dias said, the rate was $72 a day. In many districts, the rate has risen only $8.
The work demands experience and training, officials say.
“It’s not a simple job,” Dias said. “There is some perception that it’s just babysitting, but that’s not true. ... The job has become more and more difficult.”
Hiring building substitutes is a key to solving the problem, Dias said. As long-term employees, they can be paid more than their part-time counterparts and receive regular training, she said.
East Hartford district spokeswoman Laura Roberts said officials have been working with Kelly Educational Staffing to deal with the sub shortage. The district has not offered bonuses, but sub pay over the years has increased to $110 to $175 daily, Roberts said.
In Wethersfield, where Superintendent Michael Emmett said the “fail to fill” rate is much higher than in previous years, the district has raised pay for substitutes, including daily subs, building subs and long-term subs. The district also conducted a recent job fair to recruit candidates.
The sub shortage is nationwide. Some school districts have had to cancel classes or move to remote learning due to lack of classroom coverage. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported recently that many subs have decided “the stressful working conditions aren’t worth $15 an hour when they can make more at places like Walmart or Starbucks and also secure health care.”
Before the pandemic, the nation was in the midst of a teacher shortage and that continues, Dean Baker, a spokesman for Kelly Educational Staffing, said. He also said that many retirees have been hesitant to take sub jobs due to heath risks from the coronavirus. Asked if student behavior is a factor in the shortage, Baker said the impact of bad behavior on teachers affects the need for substitutes.
The nationwide company has launched a campaign called “Wake up and Teach” to highlight careers in education and get the message out that teaching is still a noble pursuit, Baker said.
Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at email@example.com.