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“Who’s Watching This Class?”: America’s COVID-Era Substitute Teacher Shortage

October 17, 2020

On November 09, 2020, my southern Louisiana school district will tentatively have all high school students return to the classroom every day. At this time, we are on a hybrid schedule in which approximately half of the students attend on alternating days.

More students in attendance means an increased likelihood of COVID-19 on campus, which, in turn, means a greater likelihood that teachers will find themselves in situations requiring a two-week quarantine.

As it is, on our current, hybrid schedule, our high school is short on substitute teachers. And a quarantined teacher means a substitute teacher is needed for not a day or two, but for two weeks.

I believe having all students on campus every day is a bad idea. One way in which that bad idea will reveal itself is in a possibly-daily frenzy to create a patchwork of adult supervison on the fly for multiple, unmanned classrooms full of students.

As it stands, we already have that frenzy multiple times per week.

Other states are facing substitute teacher shortages during the pandemic (e.g., Pennsylvania and Connecticut and Kentucky and beyond).

As a result, two Michigan schools had to briefly close, as the October 15, 2020, WWTV 9 & 10 News reports:

Two local schools made the decision to close Thursday after teachers and staff were forced to quarantine following positive cases in the district.

They couldn’t find enough substitutes to hold in-person class.

Morley Stanwood Superintendent Roger Cole says a handful of staff members at the district recently had to quarantine. That, combined with several teachers already scheduled to be off Thursday and an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers, lead to the decision to close school for the day.

“Today (Thursday) was not closed because of a mass outbreak, today we closed because we didn’t have enough grownups in the building. Replacing one, or two or three isn’t bad, but replacing 10, that doesn’t work,” Cole said.

It was a similar story for Reed City Middle School: staff under quarantine and difficulty finding subs on short notice.

Colorado is “being forced to get creative”:

In Denver Public Schools, the largest district in Colorado, a little more than half of the teachers active in the substitute pool said they were willing to take in-person assignments this fall.

Now, districts are scrambling to figure out how to cover teacher absences and where to find more subs. And they’re being forced to get creative. 

In one district, parents are raising their hands to sub to help prevent a shortage. Other districts, including Alamosa, are looking within, at their own teacher and paraprofessional workforce, offering a financial incentive to those staff members who step up and fill in when needed. And in some districts, administrators who still hold a teaching license are adding the role of substitute to their many responsibilities.

The state’s substitute teacher shortage isn’t far off from a crisis….

And Indiana is having its own substitute shortage and has resorted to billboard advertising to address the issue:

Click image to enlarge.

“The COVID Classroom Coverage Scramble”:

Now playing at schools and districts everywhere.



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  1. Laura H.Chapman permalink

    Thanks for this report. I understand the problem but have no special wisdom beyond the offer of financial incentives for people who may be certified. In addition to staffing issues, the legal liabilities for individuals, schools, and districts are too rarely discussed.

  2. My district Warren County R-3 in Missouri had to cancel in person learning due to the shortage of substitute teachers. Thanks for pointing out a glaring problem!

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