Anyone in education will tell you it’s already tough enough to find a substitute teacher in Vermont. The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened that problem.
As Vermont schools prepare to reopen Sept. 8, districts face a troubling shortage of subs.
“There’s no doubt that our members are very much concerned about this,” said Don Tinney, president of the Vermont-NEA, a union that represents more than 13,000 educators and school workers around the state.
In Vermont, sub pools are notoriously shallow. Tinney called it a “perennial issue.”
He noted a union member who told him that under normal circumstances they were unable to fill three out of four teacher absences.
Tinney said the inconsistent nature of the job makes it unattractive to people who rely on a steady income or don’t have a flexible schedule.
As a result, many subs are retired individuals and, often, retired teachers. However, given the particular danger the pandemic poses to older adults, Tinney said that demographic is choosing to stay home right now.
Adding another wrinkle to the impending sub shortage is the uptick in teachers who have opted to take leaves of absence or retire rather than return to the classroom this fall.
Tinney said while he only has anecdotal evidence about the wave of departures or applications for modified work accommodations, he thinks it is “certainly a cause for concern.”
The shortage has created yet another challenge among superintendents who are scrambling to secure as many subs as they can ahead of reopening.
David Younce, president of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said he’s heard the same thing from superintendents across the state.
“Most every superintendent I interact with is significantly concerned about a greatly decreased availability of subs or an altogether lack of availability of subs,” he said Friday.
Younce said he has heard from some districts where only 25% of their regular sub roster has expressed a willingness to work this fall.
Another factor Younce said he is hearing concerns about is what he called “the statewide child care dilemma.”
“Some of our teachers will not be able to work some days because of child care needs related to their own children,” he said.
Younce, said one innovation he’s been seeing is districts that are hiring permanent or floating subs that would be available to cover classes within a school as needed.
The Slate Valley Unified School District, is one district going that route.
Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said Friday that she has already secured several permanent subs who will be assigned to specific buildings within the district through September. She is looking to assign more so every school will have at least one sub on site.
Her goal is to limit subs’ movement between schools. Ideally, she said she’d prefer not to share her subs with neighboring districts in order to further reduce any potential for community spread of the virus.
According to Olsen-Farrell, the district’s sub roster sits at 44 for the fall, and a recent advertisement yielded another six applicants.
“I’m concerned every year, but I’m not panicking,” she said. “There seems to be some interest right now.”
Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said her district is looking at hiring floating subs as well, however, her roster is not as robust as Slate Valley’s.
“Last year, we had difficulty filling all of our sub needs,” she said Friday. “In this environment, we think it’s going to be even tougher.”
Collins said she has 14 subs confirmed for the fall, which puts her well below the 50 or so she said the district needs.
As with other districts, she said subs at RNESU will go through trainings for using online teaching tools and conducting COVID screenings. She said subs would be compensated for their time. In addition, she said a pay rate increase for subs is currently under consideration.
Other superintendents interviewed said that monetary compensation for trainings was either already approved or still being explored, as were pay rates.
Sub rates vary depending on the district though most pay around $100 per day. The Slate Valley School Board recently approved a new rate of $15 per hour with a daily minimum of three hours.
And while RNESU’s 14 subs seems low, it’s a glut compared to the Montpelier-Roxbury Public School District. Superintendent Libby Bonesteel characterized her district’s sub prospects as “bleak” Friday.
“While we have lots of phone calls out right now, we have four confirmed substitutes for high school,” she said.
Normally, that pool is around 20 to 25.
Bonesteel said she is trying to limit sub usage to Montpelier High School. She explained there should be no need for subs in other district schools because they are using a pod model in which there will be two teachers or adults in each classroom at all times.
“We have plan B and Plan C and plan D laid out for those classrooms,” she said. “We think that we can make things work that way.”
Despite all the dire warnings, Jamie Holt is one substitute teacher who’s ready to get back into the classroom.
Holt is a sub in the Rutland City Public School District, where she taught for 38 years.
“I don’t have any problem with returning to be a substitute this year,” she said, citing the state’s low infection rate.
Holt said she has “complete confidence” in the administration’s reopening plan.
“If we use logic and follow the state health recommendations, our schools should be successful,” she said. “And maybe we could, just possibly, set an example for other districts.”