As schools work to reopen this fall, districts worry about substitute teaching shortage

Studies show schools can reopen safely, with appropriate testing and contact tracing efforts
Posted at 2:57 PM, Jul 28, 2020

Uncertainty has ruled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, as schools work to get students back in the classroom, school districts are working with uncertainty as they expect there to be a significant shortage of substitute teachers.

“It’s a mathematical certainty that we’ll be opening up schools without enough teachers,” said Nicola Soares, president of Kelly Education, a substitute teacher recruiting firm that places more than a million substitute teachers in classes across the country. “We’ve been working around the clock anticipating what that demand was going to be, and I think every single school district is going to require substitute teachers.”

The substitute teaching shortage began long before the pandemic began, but Soares expects the virus to only exacerbate the problem.

In the mid-2000s, Kelly Education found 10 percent of incoming college freshmen were pursuing a degree in education. Today, that number has fallen to 4.5 percent. Add in the fact that many substitute teachers are older retirees, and they might choose not to come back to the classroom this fall because of the health risks associated with the novel coronavirus.

“I love my job. I know a lot of subs say it’s not worth it to go back [because] we make just above minimum wage,” said Kathryn Barrett, a substitute teacher in Florida.

Barrett says the pandemic has put many substitutes at the middle of the crossroads, where they feel compelled to work because many have been struggling with unemployment, but at the same time they do not want to risk their health or the health of their families.

Many substitutes move from school to school during the week, Barrett says, increasing the risk of contracting the virus and then spreading it.

“There’s just a lot of unknown right now for substitutes,” she said.

Kelly Education took a survey of more than 2,000 educators and administrators nationwide. Those teachers estimated teacher vacancy rates would increase come the fall, and the need for substitutes would rise by 71 percent over the course of the next five years.

To incentivize people to take up substitute teaching states has adjusted. In Iowa, the governor suspended the limit on how long a substitute teacher can teach a certain class. The state also decreased the minimum age requirement from 21 to 20, hoping furloughed workers or recent graduates may look to substitute teaching as an alternative form of work.

“What if I get sick?” asked Barrett. "I don’t have any medical insurance, so will I be on my own for 14 days while I’m quarantining?”

It's only more uncertainty this mother weighs and manages as she decides the future for herself and family.