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Substitute teachers in high demand, short supply as schools lean on subs

  • Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative Middle/High School Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Kindergarten teacher Taylor McArdle helps a student during class at Lyndeborough Central School last March. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/9/2020 5:33:42 PM

As the holidays and the height of flu season approaches, substitute teachers are more in demand then ever – and in shorter supply.

The Wilton-Lyndeborough School district recently faced the question of how to handle an expected teacher shortage following the Thanksgiving and December holidays, with several teachers expected to have to quarantine after travel, and a pool of only two substitutes to pull from.

During an emergency meeting Thursday, the district voted unanimously not to enter a fully remote period – a solution proposed by the district’s Remote Learning Committee – and instead intends to hire an additional four long-term substitutes to fill the gaps, at a cost of about $212 per day each for 28 school days. Long-term substitutes who hold positions for fewer than 90 days do not qualify for benefits.

The need for a solution became clear as Superintendent Bryan Lane and district principals explained to the board that any more than two or three teachers out at either Florence Rideout Elementary School or the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative Middle/High School leads to an untenable situation.

 At the Middle/High School, in those circumstances, some classes have been forced to combine into a study hall in the gymnasium or other large meeting space, and at Florence Rideout Elementary School, teachers for classes such as music, art and gym are pulled from their regular duties to lead core curriculum classes. Neither, district principals said, is a solution that is workable for a long-term teacher absence.

COVID shrinks the sub pool

The shortage of substitute teachers isn’t a new issue. Districts have been dealing with the shortages for several years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lane said Friday. Approaching the pandemic, unemployment numbers were so low, employers were competing for workers.

“Any person who was looking for a consistent situation, jobs were there for them,” Lane said.

ConVal School District Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders agreed that the substitute situation has been precarious for several years.

“Every day, we’re looking for subs,” Rizzo Saunders said.

So, the pool was already stretched in 2019. But districts had potential substitutes, often elderly or retired teachers, drop off their rolls when COVID-19 hit. Lane said in the Wilton-Lyndeborough district, about three regular substitutes notified the district they wouldn’t be teaching this year, leaving them with only two substitutes to call on.

Mason School District Superintendent Kristen Kivela said she saw the same phenomenon with Mason’s own substitute pool, which she said was never deep to begin with.

“A lot of our substitutes were older, usually retired teachers,” Kivela said.

However, she said, the district is also being careful themselves about calling in substitutes, mainly relying on its employed paraprofessionals, or staff that is certified but not currently teaching, such as herself, before calling in their substitutes.

Part of the reason for that, Kivela said, is to minimize contact with people from outside the district. Particularly, she said, as its common for substitutes to be signed up to potentially teach in multiple districts, leading to the potential for spread between districts.

In ConVal, Rizzo Saunders said this year, they have asked their pool of about 26 substitutes to commit to both the school district and to a select section of students, to help prevent that kind of cross-contamination. But, she said, while a prudent safety measure, it has further restricted the district’s access to a large pool of substitutes, as some substitutes who work regionally stayed in their home district.

“That obviously causes some issues in and of itself,” Rizzo Saunders said.

WLC’s proposal

The WLC board initially considered a proposal to enter a full-remote teaching period for 28 school days, but the majority of the board said they wanted to find another way than disrupting in-person learning, which has been ongoing five days per week since the opening of school.

School Board member Tiffany Cloutier-Cabral, who sat on the Remote Learning Committee, said the committee had put forth the proposal seeing a potential shortage, and wanting to give the community as much notice as possible, should the school be forced into a remote learning model. She said without a plan, the district might have to enter remote learning without any warning to the community.

“If people are aware of the possibility and want to carry forward, that is a respectable choice,” Cloutier-Cabral said.

School Board member Carol Leblanc said the district already had addressed what to do in a teacher shortage in its reopening plan, and didn’t think the district should jump into a plan for full-remote before there was a need.

“I think the community is well aware the school could be closed at a moment’s notice. That’s already a factor. But to close everything down when we already have a plan in place, I don’t agree,” Leblanc said.

After determining the district had sufficient funds in either its substitute budget and coronavirus aid package to pay for long-term substitutes to step into the gap, the district decided that was the solution that best resolved the issue with the least amount of disruption to student learning.

A long-term substitute is hired to work for a period of time, and Lane said the substitutes will be present and paid even if the district has a full teaching staff. He said they could be used as classroom aids or to tutor children falling behind if they are not needed to run a classroom.

The district also agreed to hire a fifth long-term substitute, who will be used to teach a fourth class of second graders, as more parents transition to in-person learning for the new semester. The district will continue to provide a dedicated teacher for the second grade’s 17 fully-remote students, and split the anticipated 45 in-person learners into three 15-student classrooms.

The district’s new semester begins Monday, and a long-term substitute position for the second grade is required to be advertised for at least 10 days by district policy, meaning a candidate will not be chosen by the start of the new term, Lane said Friday. The district intends to move forward with adding an extra class this week, and the teaching position will be filled by substitutes or current personnel until a long-term substitute can be hired.

The Wilton School Board acknowledged that while the long-term substitute solution would alleviate the majority of the problem, they also recognized the need for additional short-term substitutes. During its upcoming meeting Tuesday, the board is scheduled to discuss short-term substitute salaries, with the intention of possibly increasing the daily rate to try to attract more candidates.

In the ConVal district, a short-term substitute earns $75 per day, or $95 on Mondays or Fridays, in Mason, the rate is $75 per day, and in Wilton, the rate is $65 per day.

Lane said the pay is low enough that other entry-level work can offer higher wages and more regular work. The Wilton-Lyndeborough School Board discussed the need to increase the substitute pay to hopefully draw more interested volunteers. The board discussed raising the wage as high as $100 per day, but ultimately decided to table the discussion and take it up again  during its next scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

 

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.


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