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Struggling to find substitute teachers

As California school districts face a substitute shortage so severe that some officials fear temporary school closures, some district staff are playing musical chairs to fill positions. We speak with a superintendent who now also fills in as classroom teacher, health aide, or administrative assistant, depending on the day.

Transcript:

Anne Vasquez:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. The email arrived in my inbox last month, barely two weeks after the start of the school year. My children’s Southern California school district was searching for substitute teachers. They explained that the need this year was great and the district would help parents or others gather the necessary paperwork and permits. Oh, and the pay, it would be better than usual. California school districts around the state already are strapped for full-time teachers in the classroom. Now a substitute teacher shortage is so severe some smaller districts fear temporary school closures. Even large ones like LA unified are feeling the pinch, especially with the new demands for independent study. The pandemic has worsened the situation. More teachers are retiring while others have left for better paying jobs with fewer Covid risks. Now, even substitute teachers are hard to come by. Here is this week’s education beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee Stavely:

This year at Sundale Union Elementary School District in Tulare county, filling teaching and staff positions is a little like playing musical chairs. Terri Rufert is the superintendent, but now she’s also sometimes classroom teacher or a health aid. The principal is sometimes manning the office desk, and sometimes there isn’t anyone to teach in person in a classroom.

Terri Rufert:

So this is my 35th year in education, and I have never seen it like this ever. We are lucky to find a sub. So we have had to resort to using my counselors, my special ed, my principal, myself.

Zaidee Stavely:

Sundale Union is a tiny rural district with one K through eight school and 756 students in a dairy and farming community five miles from Tulare in the San Joaquin Valley. But it hasn’t always been difficult to find subs here.

Terri Rufert:

We never had a problem finding subs. We easily had 20 subs that we could pull that liked that we thought were good to sub for us. And now our pool has gone down now to about six because the districts around us pay so much more than we pay. And out of those six we could only find one that we could hire as full-time sub on campus.

Zaidee Stavely:

And so why do you think this happened? Why has it become so much harder to find a sub? I mean, did people just find other jobs during distance learning or …

Terri Rufert:

I think some are worried about Covid and all that goes on. And then the recent drop is they don’t want to be tested in our testing pool that we have to do weekly. And then some are they said that they can make a lot of money being on unemployment. And when that ends they’ll come back to work. So I think there’s a few things going on.

Zaidee Stavely:

Terry told me about one particularly challenging day.

Terri Rufert:

We already had three subs before the school day even started. And then we had an exposure. Well then a teacher had to go home. And so then finding a teacher or a sub at about 10 o’clock was just difficult.

Zaidee Stavely:

So what Terry did was open up doors between classrooms. So a teacher could teach two classes at once with an aid in the other room to help supervise.

Terri Rufert:

For about two weeks I was the health aid and my, um, principal was the administrative assistant. So we were very, very short.

Zaidee Stavely:

This is Education Beat: Getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Diana Lambert is the reporter at EdSource who’s been covering the substitute shortage during the pandemic. Hi Diana.

Diana Lambert:

Hi Zaidee. How are you today?

Zaidee Stavely:

I’m pretty good. So we heard from Terry Rufert from Sundale about how much the substitute pool shrank in her district. And I’m curious what you heard from other superintendents. Is this true statewide?

Diana Lambert:

Across the state, it seems that there are fewer and fewer substitutes because during the pandemic many of them quit. They didn’t have any jobs to go to and they had to find other sort of work. So they left. And then there are others who left just simply because they were afraid to go into classrooms because of health concerns. So district’s substitute pools shrink greatly.

Zaidee Stavely:

So we we’ve heard a little bit of what happened in Sundale. What did you hear from other districts? Do you have other anecdotes you can share?

Diana Lambert:

Yeah in Nevada Joint Union High School District, Nevada County, they’ve had a really hard time staying open because they’ve had so many teachers out quarantined and so few substitutes. And they’ve really struggled to stay open. And at the first week of school they had 200 people out quarantined. Students and teachers. But in a school district that small, you have three or four teachers out and you really cannot fill those spots. And you have to pull out counselors. You have to pull the superintendent. You have to pull principals to fill those jobs.

Zaidee Stavely:

And large districts are having trouble too right?

Diana Lambert:

They are struggling. But because they’re so large, they are able to pull more counselors, more administrators to fill those positions. But of course there’s no one doing those jobs while they’re busy in the classroom.

Zaidee Stavely:

So I know Terry said she never had a problem before finding subs, but I know in a lot of districts, it’s been hard to find a sub for a long time. Like in my daughter’s school, if a teacher is out sick or even sometimes when they go to something planned like a conference or they have to do some kind of, you know, professional learning, sometimes they can’t find a sub. And so the kids come to school and they just all get distributed into other classrooms. Sometimes a third grader ends up in a first grade classroom for the day, or, you know, a fifth grader ends up in a second grade classroom. So it seems like it was partially a problem already.

Diana Lambert:

It was because we’ve had a teacher shortage for years. So what’s happening are the subs are being hired on emergency credentials to take over classrooms full time. And so that shrinks the sub pool. And now we’ve had a pandemic where these substitutes found other jobs and the sub pool’s getting even smaller. So now what districts are doing are just paying a lot more money. I mean, it’s just, they’re paying almost double in some cases to keep substitutes.

Zaidee Stavely:

One mom at my daughter’s school also told me that she signed up to be a substitute. She got in the system and in the first five minutes of being in the system, she got six phone calls.

Diana Lambert:

That’s probably very typical.

Zaidee Stavely:

That’s crazy to me. So do we know why this is happening? Terry mentioned some ideas to me. She mentioned some of the things that you just told me before about substitutes already being hired for other positions. And then she mentioned concern about Covid, also maybe not wanting to be tested for Covid. Are there other reasons why this is happening?

Diana Lambert:

I’m hearing more and more about more subs being pushed into full-time jobs. I think that might be the real key here because we also have a shortage of teachers recently, more retired teachers, more teachers not wanting to go back to the classroom on top of our teacher shortage. So that pushes the subs into the teaching positions. Who goes into the sub positions?

Zaidee Stavely:

Right. And then some teaching positions were created like these independent study positions. And so then they need more people. And so they might hire from the sub pool. That makes sense.

Diana Lambert:

Right and there are a lot of districts that told me because of the sub shortage they can’t do the independent study. They’re looking for waivers. They simply, they can’t staff it.

Zaidee Stavely:

Wow. Do you know where?

Diana Lambert:

Nevada Joint Union High School District was one district that told me that. Yes.

Zaidee Stavely:

Is there also a bigger need for subs just because all these quarantines and…

Diana Lambert:

Absolutely. I mean, that just magnifies the problem. Absolutely. Who fills in on the quarantine? That’s the problem. We had a sub shortage before, a teacher shortage, and now we’re like, we’re quarantining a bunch of teachers. And there’s no staff for that.

Zaidee Stavely:

One of the things Terri Rufert said is that it’s not just that they need more subs because more teachers are out, but also the quarantine period for exposure or being sick with Covid makes the absences a lot longer than before.

Terri Rufert:

As far as length of time, they’re longer. So then you might be able to find aid for one day, but not an aid for another day. And then we have the issue of a teacher that maybe is positive or quarantined, but let’s say positive. And they have their own kids and then their own kids can’t go back to daycare or school because their quarantine period doesn’t start for exposure until after their last day. So you’re talking 20 days, you know, not three school days, but 20 calendar days, which a lot of those are school days.

Zaidee Stavely:

One first grade class had five different subs over seven days.

Terri Rufert:

I don’t think that’s healthy. And in one particular day we were so short handed that there are two subs that will never come back and sub in my school district ever again. But you go from having quality subs to then getting babysitters. And I do not think babysitters are a valid…it’s not worth just having a body in there because it’s hard to have education go in there. Or we had behaviors that we don’t normally have go on and we don’t have time to be dealing with that as well. So when we talk about teacher shortage, I should say we have a substitute shortage, but we also have a quality substitute shortage.

Zaidee Stavely:

So Diana, what solutions have districts come up with?

Diana Lambert:

Paying more money? Because you’d be surprised how many people saying maybe I’ll become a sub now. Maybe they never thought to become a sub. And also they’re really trying to get parents to do it for the good of the school community, not just for the money. But because they see the need in the district and they’re willing to help. Now they’re getting paid, but they’re willing to do it because they want to help. Chula Vista actually has managed to keep a pool of substitutes, but that’s because they’re a year-round school program. They very quickly saw the problem and they increased substitute pay and did a number of other marketing things to get substitutes. One was to market to parents. They reached out to their parent population and said, Hey, we need substitutes. Uh, you no longer need to take the CBEST cause the governor changed the rules around the testing.

Zaidee Stavely:

Just to make sure for people who don’t know what is the CBEST?

Terri Rufert:

Oh, that’s the California basic educational test. It’s one of the requirements for becoming a teacher, which has actually already been changed for all teachers. They have to take coursework instead of the test. So they can take coursework instead of the test. So that was effective for Chula Vista and actually they’re in a good position, but, uh, other places like Konocti Unified in Lake County, which is a real rural district, have always had problems with substitutes because they just don’t have a pool of eligible people in their community to fill those spots.

Zaidee Stavely:

In Sundale, they’ve hired one permanent sub and are looking to hire more. They also decided to let teachers who are out sick or quarantined connect by Zoom from home to teach their class. So the kids are in the classroom, but the teacher is at home.

Terri Rufert:

My staff said, well, what if we zoomed in? And so that was kind of the agreement that I made with them. If you zoom in and you zoom in all day, then it won’t be a sick day. I won’t take that, you know, or a COVID day or whatever it is. If you zoom in half day, then we’ll do half day. It’s just, you know. So that has actually really helped for some, but we’ve had some really sick staff members that couldn’t do that. But for the classrooms that could do that and having an aide in there that knew the class already with the teachers around them having support, it has worked really well for us.

Zaidee Stavely:

And they’re working with local colleges to try to get more students to sign up to be substitutes. And with the school board to approve an increase in pay for substitutes,

Terri Rufert:

Next board meeting, I’m going to go to raise our sub rate to be a little bit more competitive. I think most of us small schools are going to do that to compete with the bigger school districts. We just can’t. It’s hard to compete with them sometimes.

Zaidee Stavely:

Diana has anything changed since your story came out? Has the state done anything new to try to fix this problem?

Diana Lambert:

The only thing they’ve done since the story came out is the 180 day waiting period that generally a retired teacher must wait that 180 days before they go and sub or work at the school district. Now they don’t have to do that. They could immediately start substituting at a school district. That’s really the change since then.

Zaidee Stavely:

Is there also a change for, maybe this happened before the story, but has there also been a change as far as how long you can sub in a classroom?

Diana Lambert:

If you have a 30 day subs permit, now you can sub for 60 days in one classroom without having to get a long-term permit. Yeah.

Zaidee Stavely:

And then the other thing is you mentioned this a little bit earlier, but, um, the change to the retiree requirements, can you explain that a little bit more?

Diana Lambert:

Right. Recently, governor Newsom decided to allow teachers who’ve retired to immediately return to the classroom to substitute. Previously they had to wait 180 days after they retired to return to the classroom. So now, because of the shortage of substitutes, they’re allowing teachers to get right back into the classroom and help out their school districts by substituting,

Zaidee Stavely:

I asked Terry Rufert what she thought about the changes that the state made.

Terri Rufert:

Well you know, they’ve been good about waiving some of the requirements from them. So that was a huge help. That was fairly recent. I mean, of course we’d like them to have their bachelors, but if we can, you know, waive a bachelor’s because we have somebody that’s good in the middle of school, they’ve waived the CBEST. I mean, there was some things that we can do. They just, the biggest thing that helped is that we can have a sub sub for more than 30 days now, before they’re considered long-term. That way you get some consistency in that classroom. If they can keep that going, that will help immensely. Because you could potentially have a teacher that is quarantined several times throughout the year.

Zaidee Stavely:

So Diana, going forward, where do you see this heading? Do you think it’s going to get better or worse?

Diana Lambert:

That’s a good question. I hope it gets better. They’re loosening a lot of restrictions, maybe more people be interested in substituting. And with the pay increases, I mean, some of these, this pay has doubled. And when you’re retired teacher, by the way, your pay is much higher than the daily rate for a regular person who comes in and subs. With those things in place. I think it should get better

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you so much for being with us, Diana.

Diana Lambert:

All right. Thank you.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to Terry Rufert, Diana Lambert, and our director Anne Vasquez. And of course also thank you to all those subs out there who I know sometimes put up with some crazy behavior from students. Our theme is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and don’t forget to subscribe.

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