Substitute teacher shortage hits hard
Pandemic makes subs even harder to find and keep
WITH 12 Ortega Middle School teachers scheduled to be out Friday, administrators of the Alamosa School District suddenly had to weigh their last-resort option: closing school.
Assistant Superintendent Luis Murillo and his team “briefly” considered the idea, but instead scrambled to find staff to help cover classrooms, drafting Alamosa Online School employees — including the principal — to sub for the day. Murillo, himself, stationed himself at the school in case he was needed in a classroom during the half day of classes. He also asked Alamosa High School’s principal and assistant principal to be on call.
“We need all hands on deck because school means a lot more to our community than education,” Murillo said, citing students who rely on school for meals and who depend on their teachers for support.
The struggle to keep schools open has become an all-too-familiar bind for Colorado districts as they seek to recruit enough substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who may be sick or on vacation. While some schools have had to temporarily close without enough subs or other staff to stand in for educators, others have asked top-level school and district administrators to assume the role of sub for a day.
Schools have also pulled paraprofessionals from their regular duties of assisting students who need additional help and offered a small bonus to teachers to sacrifice a planning period and cover a class in need. And schools have at times combined classes, which means a class of 20 students could immediately swell to a class of 40.
They’re drastic measures that stretch already overwhelmed teachers and administrators, but they’re often the only ways that school leaders can keep their schools humming.
“It’s a give and take,” Murillo said, noting he’s glad that classes could continue on Friday, but not without a cost.
Colorado is now facing a statewide shortage of subs, accelerated by the pandemic, said Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the Colorado Department of Education. The state already lacked enough subs before the pandemic. Nineteen months in, with more teacher absences related to COVID-19, schools need even more subs, O’Neil said.
But the challenges run deeper than complications that have emerged during the pandemic.
Some of the state’s smaller communities simply don’t have many local residents who have the availability and flexibility needed to sub, O’Neil said.
“There’s just not a large pool to pull from in general,” she said.
Plus, substitute teaching is far from an easy job, despite public perception that it’s a breezy way to earn money, O’Neil emphasized. Subs must be ready to walk into any classroom level with children they don’t know and effectively teach lessons they don’t prepare, she said.
“When you think about it, it’s actually a very difficult job,” O’Neil said, “and because we have such a need for substitutes so quickly, it’s hard to get them the kind of training they need and the kind of support.”
Pay can be another barrier. Colorado subs typically earn between $100 and $120 a day, O’Neil said, with opportunities to take home up to $200 a day for subs with more credentials and experience and who want to become a long-term sub, meaning they’re in the position for more than two weeks.
The low end of the payscale is equivalent to the minimum wage of $12.32 an hour. In October, the average hourly wage in Colorado was $32.65, or $261.20 for an eight-hour day.
“When there’s a multitude of other jobs, that can be a challenge for people,” she said.
And subs usually must be flexible with their own schedules and families as teachers who become sick and need a sub call in the morning of the day they’ll be out.
Kids feel the biggest impacts from sub shortages
The last-minute nature of schools’ demands for subs keeps leaders like Murillo, of Alamosa School District, constantly questioning whether his schools will have enough subs day to day.
“That level of not knowing and uncertainty, it’s adding an extra layer of stress,” Murillo said.
The rural district of nearly 2,200 students — which has not had to close any schools this year because of staff and sub shortages — needs about 100 subs but at various times during the school year has had as few as 25 subs.
On some days, the district has needed about 45 subs and, similar to Friday at the middle school, has had to turn to its own staff to oversee classrooms, Murillo said.
The district took a bold step this year, hiring a full-time sub for each of its four schools at the pay rate of a teacher with benefits. It doesn’t fix the district’s shortage, “but at least they have someone there for sure,” Murillo said. He added that the district is assessing its budget to see if it could hire another full-time sub for each school.
In addition to advertising about its need for subs on the district website and through the local newspaper, the Valley Courier, the district relies on word of mouth to attract more subs and has also started branching out to gain the attention of a new demographic: college students.
The district actively works to recruit college students from both Adams State University and Trinidad State College to sub — an experience that Murillo equates to a “mini internship” that can be a source of income for students. But most of Alamosa School District’s regular subs are retired teachers who are a little bit older, Murillo said. Some worry about stepping inside a classroom and putting themselves or their families at risk of COVID.
“People are scared,” he said. “People don’t want to get sick. People don’t want to be exposed even more.”
Retired teacher Sheryl Josselyn, 61, subbed for the district for the first time last week, unafraid after getting vaccinated. She was part of the collective effort Friday to keep classes running at Ortega Middle School, where she taught for 28 years.
Josselyn, whose teaching career in science spanned 32 years total, fell right back into her groove at the front of the classroom, prepared for any students who might be bold enough to test her patience. She decided to return to school as a sub to help the district overcome its sub shortage — “a crisis” in her mind as teachers continue to have to step in to cover each others’ classes.
“I honestly am not doing it for the money,” Josselyn said. “It is just horrible, and it was horrible last year as a teacher.”
She’s particularly alarmed as paraprofessionals are plucked from their role coaching students one-on-one and in small groups to sub. She doesn’t blame the district for using those staff members when its schools are in a pinch, but “it’s very frustrating.”
Colorado Sun staff writer Tamara Chuang contributed to this report.