Schools in the United States are struggling to reopen and stay open for in-person classes amid coronavirus outbreaks.
Substitute teachers help fill the gaps when teachers are ill or on personal leave. The problem is that there aren’t enough substitutes – who usually work as needed for low pay.
So school districts are using innovative ways to find other subs and have expanded their pool of candidates to include parents, school bus drivers and even members of the military.
“It’s been tough to hire subs,” said Jean Consolla, principal at Mount Eagle Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia.
“I had a teacher about to go on maternity leave, and I’m wondering how to cover the time she is gone.”
“Then it occurred to me: What about using my son, Julian, who will be on a college break, as a substitute teacher? He has a positive attitude, likes to work with kids, and can make some money.”
Julian Consolla, 20, is majoring in sports administration. Having completed the required 30 hours of college credits needed to become a sub in Virginia, he thought it would be a good opportunity.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking at first, but after I got used to the routine, it got easier and was fun,” he told VOA.
At another school in Fairfax County, McNair Upper Elementary, Sophie Carter is also a college student and substitute teacher.
Since her major is elementary education, she considers this an ideal job,
“I’m getting classroom management skills, and hopefully I’m making the environment fun and engaging in the classroom. This has strengthened my love for teaching.”
Principal Melissa Goddin wishes more college students like Carter would apply since substitute teachers are so hard to come by.
“There are a lot of job opportunities in this area. We’re competing with places that allow people to work from home who want to avoid the possibility of being exposed to the virus at school.”
The situation is similar in Ohio.
“I think people don’t want to expose themselves to the virus if they don’t have to,” said Dawn Gould, community relations coordinator at Kings Local Schools in Kings Mills, Ohio.
“Our substitute fill-in rate was under 50% this week,” she said in an interview with VOA. “We had to close school one day recently because we were having a hard time filling the classrooms.”
A bachelor’s degree is usually required to be a sub in Ohio. But now, during the pandemic, that’s not necessary.
“We’re hopeful we can get more parents to sub who may not have a degree,” she said.
Schools in the western United States have also been calling for parents to help volunteer or substitute teach.
In California, the Palo Alto Unified School District is urging parents to volunteer with its “Together, Schools Stay Open” campaign.
“We haven’t been fully staffed for months with enough teachers or substitute teachers,” said Don Austin, the district superintendent. “About 10% of our teachers are out every day.”
Parent Jen Wiener answered the call for help.
Having parents in the classroom “is not a quick fix” to the problem, she said. “But the kids need to be in school, so let’s encourage the parents to help out.”
A school district in Texas says it can get only half of the substitutes it needs.
“People are testing positive or they’ve been in close contact with someone who has symptoms, so they stay home,” said Tim Savoy, chief communications officer for the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, outside Austin.
“We reached out to parents as substitute teachers. Although they would usually need a certain number of college credits, the school principal can waive the requirement.”
The rules have also been relaxed in other states.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill that would temporarily “allow trusted staff members such as secretaries, paraprofessionals, and others to work as substitute teachers until the end of the current school year.”
School bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrative assistants who have a high school education can also be used, according to R.J. Webber, assistant superintendent for academic services at Novi Community School District.
“Our teachers provide lesson plans for the substitutes, who make sure the kids are looked after and safe,” he said.
But that’s disconcerting to Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators.
“It’s concerning that the standards are being lowered,” he said, “but understandably, districts are just trying to do anything to make sure that there’s some supervision in the classroom.”
Due to “extreme staffing shortages,” New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is asking members of the National Guard to volunteer as substitute teachers. “Our schools are a critical source of stability for kids. We know they learn better in the classroom,” she said.