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No substitute for teachers

Schools struggling to find and keep fill-in educators

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Substitute teacher Judy Vystricl of Southington instructs a third-grade class at LaBrae Intermediate School last week. Across the state and nation, school districts are finding it difficult to find substitute teachers. To attract more candidates, LaBrae Superintendent Anthony Calderone said the district last year increased the daily pay from $78 to $90.

Substitute teacher Stacie Lawson never thought about not teaching, even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I love what I do,” Lawson said. “Kids need to be in school five days a week. It has been difficult because a great deal of them have fallen behind because of the changes in routines and how the past couple years have been.”

Finding substitute teachers as dedicated as Lakeview’s Lawson has grown increasingly difficult for districts across the Mahoning Valley and the nation.

School districts have been scrambling to attract and keep substitute teachers as the pandemic has exposed a shortage of people entering and wanting to remain in education.

Velina Jo Taylor, Lakeview schools superintendent, said COVID-19 has been testing the resources of districts in many ways, including finding regular full-time teachers, substitutes, bus drivers and other staff members.

Taylor said it is particularly difficult for smaller districts with limited funds.

“Our rate of pay, $80 per day for substitute teachers, is lower than some of our neighboring districts,” she said. “We are fortunate we have great kids and some substitutes like coming to the district because they like the kids.”

She added, however, this leaves the substitutes having to decide which is more important: the kids they will be teaching or what they can earn.

Taylor said the district has needed multiple substitutes every day over the past two years.

The most difficult part has been finding long-term substitutes for subjects such as math and science, which require specific teaching credentials.

“We’ve done everything we could to find these teachers, including resorting to Facebook, in looking for those with the specialized skills needed to fill these positions,” she said.

Unlike some school districts, Lakeview has not hired permanent building substitutes.

“Pre-COVID we had a core of substitutes that would always come back,” Taylor said. “However, during the last school year, some of those regulars, many of whom are older, decided not to teach.”

While some returned this year, some of those regulars are likely never to return.

Lakeview is planning to have a job fair in its kindergarten through eighth-grade building starting at 5 p.m. Thursday. It is not just for teachers, but also for classroom aides, licensed practical nurses, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and other positions.

Taylor said substitute teachers do not have to have a teaching license to qualify for a substitute license in Ohio for the remainder of this school year.

SERVICE CENTER

The Trumbull County Educational Service Center vets potential substitute teachers for Bloomfield-Mespo, Bristol, Brookfield, Champion, Girard, Howland, Hubbard, Joseph Badger, LaBrae, Lakeview, Liberty, Lordstown, Maplewood, Mathews, McDonald, Newton Falls, Niles, Southington, Trumbull Career and Technical Center and Weathersfield.

TCESC credentials substitutes and compiles a list of names that it provides to school districts. It assists potential substitutes with securing a substitute license and background checks. New substitute teachers also are required to complete a workshop to prepare for substituting.

The districts hire their own substitutes, according to Carlottta Sheets, supervisor of human resources.

Sheets said TCESC constantly is doing recruiting projects.

“We have job postings on the TCESC website, Indeed and Ohio Means Jobs to name a few,” Sheets said.

Sheets said the substitute shortage is something that has been building for several years.

“At one time, there were many licensed teachers available who substituted regularly as they pursued full-time job opportunities,” she said. “Currently, we are experiencing a shortage of licensed teachers in all areas.”

MORE MONEY

LaBrae Superintendent Anthony J. Calderone said the district had more of a problem finding substitutes last year than this year — so far.

“We had more staff-related COVID-related absences last year,” Calderone said. “It wasn’t necessarily the fact that our employees had COVID, but they may have been quarantined because of the diagnosis of family members or someone close to them.”

With more people being vaccinated, Calderone said he expects the need for more substitutes will begin to subside.

To attract more candidates, Calderone said the district last year increased the daily pay from $78 to $90.

Increased money, however, has not been enough for the district to find enough substitutes.

“We have been asking some of our retirees to come back and substitute for a few days a week,” Calderone said.

Calderone said when the district cannot find enough substitutes, it will use some of its regular classroom teachers to fill in for the absent teacher.

“When we use internal substitutes, we pay an extra $25 per period because we are taking away planning time for their own classes,” Calderone said. “It is in their contracts.”

Calderone said paying classroom teachers a small amount to cover for others when schools cannot find substitutes is a common practice.

He noted the amount paid may be different, depending on the school district.

Brookfield Superintendent Toby Gibson said he is sure the district needed to use more substitutes over the last two years. There’s definitely a shortage of them when the district calls to fill positions.

Gibson said he believes there has been more of a problem filling positions this year than last in Brookfield because all of the school districts are back to five days per week. During the last school year, some districts were on hybrid schedules and some were fully remote.

“There were some people unwilling to come into schools because of COVID, but because many students were being taught from home, the pressure to fill positions were in some ways less,” he said.

Last year was the first that Brookfield hired four permanent building substitutes to fill in whenever teachers were off sick.

Permanent building substitutes earn $100 per day. Other substitutes earn $82 per day.

“Right now we are meeting our need for substitutes, but we are always recruiting new ones to be available during times of need, “ Gibson said.

Brookfield, like most Trumbull school districts, obtains a list of state-qualified substitutes from the Trumbull County ESC.

Warren City School District has sought to address the shortages by increasing the daily rate pay to $125 per day. Building substitutes — those committed to working four days per week at a particular school building — are being paid a daily rate of $150.

CONFLICTING STATS

While some districts are having problems attracting substitutes, the Ohio Department of Education notes the state has more people with substitute teaching licenses this year than it has had in the last five years.

In the 2020-21 school year, 36,599 people had substitute teaching licenses in Ohio. There were 26,804 people with the licenses in the 2015-2016 school year.

The number of people with valid substitute teaching licenses does not reflect the number of teachers available to substitute, according to Mandy Minick, a spokeswoman with the ODE.

“Some teachers who have a valid teaching license might have decided not to teach full time, but rather act as a substitute from time to time,” she said.

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said the organization’s local affiliates have been reporting a problem getting substitute teachers.

“While some of this is definitely related to the pandemic, there has been a growing problem in getting substitutes and, overall, new teachers coming into the field for more than a decade,” DiMauro said. “Overall, there has been a decline in people going into education as a career choice.”

The lower number of people entering education is, in part, fueled by economics, he continued.

“People are looking at teaching careers and are deciding they are not paying enough,” DiMauro said. “Other reasons include the greater use of standardized testing and some teachers believe they are not being supported enough.”

FIXING IT

Ohio is attempting to address the substitute teaching shortage with the recently passed Senate Bill 1, which grants the ODE authority to issue one-year, nonbachelor degree substitute teacher licenses to education students who have not earned their degrees and passed the licensing tests.

The OEA did not object to the passage of SB 1.

“We are in an emergency situation, and this is something that may be needed to get school districts through this period,” DiMauro said. “However, it is not a good idea to water down standards. This is not a long-term solution. It is a Band-Aid.”

According to a report in the Business Insider, the substitute and teacher shortage is a problem being faced by districts across the U.S. The magazine reports that educators across the country have been re-evaluating their career choices.

A survey from May found 32 percent of teachers considered leaving the profession because of the pandemic. Special education teacher numbers also are down.

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