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March 31, 2022
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A Checklist to Address the School Substitute Shortage

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These simple actions can help school leaders navigate the staffing crisis.
Leadership
A Checklist to Address the School Substitute Shortage
Credit: filo from iStock
Of the many pandemic-related challenges schools have faced so far, one staffing issue has been especially hard to shake: School and district leaders are struggling to find substitute teachers, a pre-pandemic problem made worse by COVID-19. According to a national EdWeek Research Center survey published in October, more than three-quarters of school leaders say they are experiencing at least moderate staffing shortages this school year, with 25 percent of those describing the problem as “severe.” 
Cincinnati Public Schools closed for 12 days in January because staffing levels were insufficient to operate safely, while at least two states have removed degree requirements for subs to incentivize more potential hires. New Mexico was the first state to ask National Guard troops to volunteer as substitute teachers (even the governor herself agreed to help out).
But of course, it’s those in the school building who feel the most strain: teachers forced to spend additional time seeking their own replacements when they are out sick, substitutes working in potentially risky conditions for minimal pay, educators pulled from their normal duties to cover other classes, and students ultimately losing instructional time and attention.
The lengths some teachers have had to go to take time off seem brutal. A Spanish teacher in Virginia who is pregnant and needs regular medical check-ups, said in an interview, “I message more than 20 people [I know] personally every time I need to be absent and I get no’s from everyone except maybe one person. It’s rare that I’ll have two people say, ‘OK, I can do it,’ and there are many times no one can do it at all.” This comes after struggling to secure a substitute from the district’s database—a system with hundreds of certified subs but none available and willing to take the job.
The contributing factors to the substitute crisis aren’t hard to decipher. The job isn’t exactly lucrative—the mean annual wage for a short-term substitute teacher was $36,000 in 2020and due to a risk of COVID-19 infection in schools, many would-be potential subs weren't willing to take the gamble.
As the crisis continues, however, some schools are making strides in finding replacements and maintaining a pool of substitutes. Although solutions that work in some contexts may not work in others (and there’s definitely a need for long-term structural changes), here’s a checklist of recommendations for dealing with substitute shortages drawn from recent conversations with teachers, school personnel officers, and school leaders.

Figure 1: The School Leader Substitute Shortage Checklist

The following solutions can be considered as a backup when substitutes are difficult to obtain.
A Checklist for addressing the substitute teaching shortage

The Work Ahead

Of course, the burden should not rest solely on teachers and school administrators. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) includes funding for districts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and incentivize the teaching profession in general. In a recent document, the U.S. Department of Education identified “rehiring public sector workers up to pre-pandemic levels” and “providing assistance to disproportionately impacted schools” as two ways that ARP funds could be used to address teacher shortages.
The document also mentions how some districts are filling in the substitute gap: The San Diego Unified School District, for example, created a “Resident Visiting Teacher” position (having an educator on standby at every school), and raised daily pay for substitutes by more than $100 to $285. The Colorado Substitute Stipend Program, meanwhile, is offering a $300 bonus for obtaining a license and undergoing training.
In the end, a culture of transparency, creativity, and compassion from all involved can help schools put their best foot forward in addressing the substitute shortage.

Esteban Bachelet is the associate writer of Educational Leadership magazine.

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