SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. – The increasing need for more substitute teachers to fill in for full-time teachers calling out sick, resigning or even protesting over in-school learning as coronavirus cases continue to rise across the country has pushed some school districts to temporarily relax qualification requirements.
Such measures have been seen in Iowa and Missouri while in Rhode Island, a new training program has been launched to get more substitutes into classrooms. In Michigan, billboards have gone up trying to attract new hires, and some subs in Connecticut might not need a bachelor’s degree at all.
Andy Shirk, the executive vice president of Educational Services, Inc. (ESI) in Scottsdale, Ariz., told Fox News that it’s been a very busy school year because the substitute teachers schools already have on the books “can’t possibly meet all the capacity out there.”
He said the company works with more than 120 school districts and the 5,000 substitute teachers on their roster are not enough.
“We’ve seen instances, both the folks at the school districts that work with the ESI as well as other school districts, you know sometimes they can’t have in-person learning or cover those in-person classes, so we’ve seen closures. It’s something where we really, really need that help,” he said.
And it’s not just to replace the full-time teachers. Increasingly these new hires are filling in for longtime substitutes who have taken this school year off because of the pandemic.
Eugene Obermuller has worked as a substitute teacher in New York City’s school system for the last 15 years but returning to the classroom was off the table during the pandemic.
“It’s kind of tough to actually make a decision to stay home,” he told Fox News. “[Family and friends] said, ‘You know what, I wouldn’t take a chance right now, it’s just something that you may not want to do. It’s just too risky especially in your case because you’ve had major heart surgery.’ You know, these are all things that are spoken about when they talk about COVID high-risk factors.”
Obermuller spent most of his career as a financial administrator for NYC’s school system, and after retiring from the job, he went back to school to get a second master’s degree in education.
“If you really enjoy doing something I think it’s worth doing. Even if you’re in your 70s, it’s worth doing, whether it’s a paid job or a volunteer, it’s what keeps us going,” he said. “I kind of missed everybody. I miss the staff. I keep in touch with people on Facebook but it’s just kind of hard for me. This has been a tough year, in the sense that I was recovering, trying to do rehab, and at the same time trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.”
Shirk said they have focused their efforts on trying to recruit younger substitute teachers who are technologically savvy to handle remote learning amid the pandemic.
“So of our 5,000 substitutes 2,000 of them are over the age of 65. So given the pandemic and the risk factors there so many of those folks aren’t able to participate, in fact most sub pools across the state are down about 40%, some cases 60%,” said Shirk.
A recent survey by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA) found that 27% of teacher vacancies in Arizona remain unfilled while about 47% of the vacancies are filled by teachers who do not meet the state’s standard certification requirements.
“The number of teachers who separated employment right when school starts is astounding, but it just gets worse as the year progresses,” said Justin Wing, a data analyst for ASPAA. “You can’t predict COVID, you can’t predict it a week from now so it’s really tough. Obviously if COVID is still around and as a pandemic, it’s going to impact everywhere, certainly in education.”
“Despite less absences, which is a kind of ironic, and a reason why there may be less teacher absences is because a lot of teachers are teaching virtually from home and so even if you’re under the weather, you’re still able to perform your duties where, if you’re under the weather two years ago, you were calling in sick and we didn’t have that virtual setting. So you have less teacher absences, but a significant decline in the teacher fill rate,” said Wing.
As for Obermuller, he said once he’s gotten the vaccine and the virus is under control he wants to go back to teaching.
“You hear from people and they say we miss you, It’s kind of nice because I’m only a substitute teacher but I feel like I’m part of the school. … I feel like maybe I might have made an impact on somebody,” he added.