Substitute shortage leads some local schools to go virtual

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BERRIEN COUNTY, Ind. -  Low pay and high risk, that’s a problem many schools are facing trying to find substitute teachers during a pandemic.

When you drive past Buchanan High School it’s easy to notice there are no students wandering around but it’s what many don’t notice that is causing such a problem. A sign right on the front lawn, showing the district's plea for more substitutes.

"When 4:30 a.m. when the alarm goes off in the morning, the first thing I do is I always check to see who's going to be out that day and the process starts really early," Cindy Bowerman, a 3rd-grade teacher at Moccasin Elementary in Buchanan said.

For schools in Michigan, the search for substitutes starts online, through a 3rd-party substitute site.

"Most of the time, to be honest with you, if you're at the middle school level, if they haven't picked up by 5:30 a.m. or 6:00, a.m. you're not going to get a sub," Mark Kurland, the Assistant Superintendent at Buchanan Community Schools said.

What happens when the smiling faces of your teachers and administrators suddenly can’t show up to work? And the search for subs is unsuccessful?

"We have to get a little bit creative," Shelby Beasley the Principal at Buchanan Middle School said.

Well, that’s a problem many local school districts are trying to solve every day.

"So what happens now we’ll bring kids back and we know, people are going to get sick, and the adults are going to get sick. And what do we do? And we knew this was coming. But we didn't have an answer, because of course, there was already, you know, a shortage," Dr. Michael Dunn, a Principal at Moccasin Elementary said.

This teacher and substitute shortage has been an ever-increasing problem in Indiana and Michigan for years even if there hasn't been much change in the number of permits given out.

According to a spokesperson from the Indiana Department of Education in 2016-2017, they issued 11,408 sub permits and in 2019-2020 they issued 11,421. The numbers are that different, however, the permits are valid for three years so in any given year the number of sub permits issued is about one-third of the total number of valid sub permits in the state.

"Last year, we didn't have a lot of subs also. So there were weeks where I was subbing like twice or three times a week," Shelly Bender, a 5th-grade teacher at Buchanan Middle School

And the COVID-19 pandemic just made an existing problem worse.

"We figured that the situation would escalate this year a little bit based on anxieties or fears of coming into the classroom, or just some of our substitutes were a little bit older," Beasley said.

“I just think that some people are honestly scared to come into a school based on the covid risk,” Bender said. "Especially when you're subbing for a class, you're going into a new class of kids that you haven't been around all day."

For some districts, the cost of the shortage can be hefty.

Our team was supposed to go to Buchanan to interview school staff in-person but because of quarantining and substitute shortages, they've had to go virtual

"So we have some teachers that are falling ill, they've got family members that might be ill, and we have a lot of students that are close contacts," Beasley said. "We are going remote now until December 7 is when we will return to school.”

But going virtual isn't their first option.

“It's not always easier to go virtual, but it becomes a place of how are we going to be able to operate our building. And if we cannot operate our building because of a shortage of staff, when we do whatever we can to fit people in here and their cover," she said.

According to school officials out of one high school, one middle school, and two elementary schools in Buchanan Community School District, there have been 221 days this school year where the district has needed substitutes. However, 20% or 45 of those days the district could not find one.

"We've had days where we've had anywhere between six to eight spots unfilled, typically that that's high for us," Dr. Dan Applegate, the Niles Community Schools Superintendent said.

Down the road at Niles Schools, they are using other staff to sub for teachers.

"It's our behavior specialists. It is me. It is our teacher assistants," Joe Racht, the principal at Eastside Connections said.

“Our instructional assistants and our support staff have really stepped up to the plate," Lauren Cornelius, a 2nd-grade teacher at Eastside Connections said. “I mean, one minute, they're working in the lunchroom, the next minute, they're subbing in the classroom, then the next month they're teaching.”

But is it as good of an education? Or are schools just kind of trying to find someone to fill that spot?

“Right now, it's just finding someone to help take the spot and keep the kids safe, while teachers have to step away from the classroom," Bowerman said.

So why is there such a big shortage? There are several reasons.

"Michigan has always had a sub problem because we can't even have retired teachers come in as a sub. So it changes everything because we have to get people that are not in the educational system to step in," she said.

"What we've learned is as we made phone calls to previous subs, a lot of them taken jobs doing private tutoring and practice because there was a fear of actually still going remote," Dunn said.

"You have to have 60 credit hours. And we're just saying, you know, can we lower that right now, because we have some really high-quality paraprofessionals, we have some parent volunteers who also work for us and do some volunteering as well, who can absolutely take over a classroom as a substitute teacher, they just don't meet the requirements. So even if they did that, just during the pandemic, that would help all of us," Applegate said.

So if state restrictions don’t allow retired teachers or parents to help, is there a third option or another place schools can look for help?

Some school districts are using local colleges.

"We would get calls from area school districts if, you know our seniors had any days that they could substitute. Or if we knew of individuals who perhaps graduated didn't have a position where they available," Jim Bennett, a Program Director and Department Chair for Education at Bethel University

But is this the first time that colleges are seeing these kinds of levels of reaching out from districts? Bennett said yes.

“I would say to this magnitude, maybe," he said.

School districts are also starting to recruit in more non-traditional ways.

"We've got posters and signs up and reiterating people," Dunn said.

"More career fairs, more outreach, more growing of your own products, more reaching out to colleges and saying, hey, for internships or student teaching," Applegate said.

And some districts are even increasing pay and benefits to be more competitive

"We have definitely upped our rate," Racht said.

“I think we pay about 90 to $100 a day and Buchanan, and we've gone up in the last couple of years. But as we go up, other districts go up, and then there's at least one local district. I know that's paying between 125 and 150. And they give vacation days or holiday pay. And that may be hard for some districts to get up to that," Kurland said.

He said the subs can basically go to whoever pays the most and with smaller schools who don't necessarily have those funds, they are kind of out of luck.

So if you are looking to pocket some extra cash and you are good with kids, there could be some great opportunities out there.

“It's been something that's been growing for the past several years that just had not had enough people signing up to do it. So I would encourage anybody that's passionate about working with kids to sign up because we need you even if it's one day a week, we can use all the help that we can get," Cornelius said.

I asked officials at both school districts if this shortage is going to continue into next year, although both said probably, everything is still up in the air.

For now, Buchanan schools are set to come back in early December.


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