Long underpaid and underappreciated, substitute teachers are key to keeping schools open this year. But a shortage of subs has created another layer of chaos to this pandemic school year.
Kelly Rhoden, the principal at Nevada Union High School, spent her morning Monday scrambling to find substitutes for her absent teachers.
The school, about 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, has 86 teachers. Thirteen were out on Monday.
â€œWe have quite a few teachers out either because theyâ€™ve tested positive, theyâ€™re symptomatic, or they have their own children who are in quarantine,â€ she said. â€œAt the end of the day, we just donâ€™t have enough substitutes.â€
Across California, the substitute teacher shortage is another burden in anÂ already challenging school year. Administrators are taking desperate steps to make sure thereâ€™s an adult in the classroom when teachers are absent, resorting to using non-teaching staff who have their own critical responsibilities during the typical school day, especially during the first fully in-person school year of the pandemic.
Nevada Union High and the rest of the Nevada Joint Union High School District share a pool of substitute teachers with eight other districts in Nevada County. Last year, the pool was stretched so thin that Nevada Joint Union shut down schools due to a sub shortage. District officials are worried itâ€™ll happen again.
â€œLast October, we had to go back to distance learning because I ran out of substitutes,â€ said Brett McFadden, superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High. â€œNot because we didnâ€™t have enough protective equipment. I ran out of adults.â€
McFadden said even he has had to sub for a class.
According to County Superintendent Scott Lay, the county went from having about 200 substitute teachers before the pandemic to less than 70 today. As a result, principals like Rhoden are forced to place counselors and administrators in classrooms. Even then, Rhoden fell short three substitutes on Monday.
The substitute shortage is worsened by an underlyingÂ teacher shortage. Several district officials interviewed by CalMatters said they started the school year with some classrooms being assigned a long-term substitute.
In hopes of attracting more subs, districts have increased their pay rates, triggering similar raises at neighboring districts. But administrators say money wonâ€™t create more educators.
â€œYou get to a point where youâ€™re just begging and borrowing people from all over the district,â€ McFadden said. â€œI love my students dearly, but Iâ€™m not gonna leave 30 of them alone in a room.â€
How bad is the sub shortage?
California has seen declining numbers of new substitute teachers every year, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the agency that licenses full-time and substitute teachers.
In the 2018-19 school year, the agency issued about 64,000 substitute teaching permits. In 2020-21, it issued close to 47,000.
Prospective substitute teachers need to hold a bachelorâ€™s degree and meet theÂ â€œbasic skills requirementâ€Â either by providing a standardized test score or by having Bâ€™s or better in college-level reading, writing and mathematics courses.
â€œItâ€™s not terrifically challenging to get a sub permit in California,â€ said Mary Sandy, the executive director of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing. â€œBut the need is utterly critical.â€
At San Bernardino City Unified, the number of substitutes at the districtâ€™s disposal shrank from 1,000 before the pandemic to 700.
Marcus Funchess, who oversees human resources for the district, said only about 92% of teacher absences are covered each day.
â€œRight now our substitute teacher shortage is a concern due to the number of teachers who might need to quarantine,â€ he said. â€œOn one day we could have up to 45 jobs uncovered.â€
Why is the substitute teacher force shrinking?
Aaron Estrada, a substitute in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, said many substitutes left the profession last year because the pay wasnâ€™t worth the risk of being surrounded by unvaccinated students and staff.
â€œItâ€™s difficult to try to make a living off substitute teaching,â€ he said. â€œFor a lot of people, it didnâ€™t seem worth it.â€
Some school districts, especially those in rural communities, rely heavily on retired teachers to work as substitutes. But for those older educators, the risk of returning to the classroom is even greater.
â€œRetirees have their own fears,â€ said Rhoden, the principal at Nevada Union High. â€œThey want to keep their own health at the forefront.â€
Mike Teng, CEO of Swing Education, a company that helps over 200 school districts find substitute teachers, said the sub shortage is consistent withÂ staff shortages in the service sector.
â€œItâ€™s tough. Substitute teachers have left and havenâ€™t come back,â€ he said. â€œAnd weâ€™re potentially trying to compete with all the other industries for workers.â€
Rosi Martinez, the president of the local teachers union at Chula Vista Elementary, said former substitute teachers are reluctant to return because theyâ€™re making more money from unemployment benefits.
â€œAt one point we were only filling about half of teacher absences,â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s pretty much unheard of.â€
Rising pay and lowering barriers
In an effort to entice substitute teachers back into the classroom, the administration at the Chula Vista Elementary School District held an emergency meeting in early August to increase pay for subs.
The district increased pay for short-term subs from $122 to $200 a day. For long-term substitutes, the pay went from $180 to $283 a day. In response, the neighboring Sweetwater Union High School District increased its rate fromÂ $160 to $240 a day.
â€œYou can say itâ€™s a bidding war, but thatâ€™s just the market,â€ Teng said. â€œBut substitute teachers still arenâ€™t paid enough.â€
Elk Grove Unified has proposed raising its substitute pay rates, especially for current and retired teachers and counselors. These substitutes could makeÂ $350 a day, once the districtâ€™s school board approves the raises.
At San Bernardino City Unified, the district gave substitutes a 2% raise and paid $12,000 for digital billboards to advertise its substitute positions on the freeways. Funchess said the district would increase pay if this aggressive advertising campaign doesnâ€™t attract enough substitutes.
Apart from raising pay, district leaders said the Commission for Teacher Credentialing could take steps to remove other barriers like the $100 fee and the requirement for a bachelorâ€™s degree.
â€œWe could use any temporary reprieve,â€ Funchess said. â€œSome other states donâ€™t require a bachelorâ€™s degree to be a substitute teacher. Itâ€™s worth a discussion here.â€
A sub shortage on top of a teacher shortage
The substitute shortage is just a symptom of an ongoing teacher shortage, according to district administrators. Because some districts across the state started the school year with unfilled teaching positions, some students have only had a substitute teacher in the weeks since school started.
In the 2020-21 school year, 13,558 of Californiaâ€™s teachers retired, 1,000 more than the previous year, according to data from the California State Teachersâ€™ Retirement System.
Mary Sandy at the Commission on Teacher Credentialing said the agency must credential about 20,000 teachers a year to keep up with the staffing needs of districts across the state. Last year, only about 14,000 teachers received their credentials.
And while this yearâ€™s state budget includes a historic amount of funding for Californiaâ€™s schools, no amount of money can overcome the bottom line of a personnel shortage.
At Nevada Joint Union High School District, Superintendent Brett McFadden said despite raising the daily rate from $100 to $150 per day, finding substitutes continues to be a challenge especially in more rural and remote parts of the county.
â€œI donâ€™t have a money problem,â€ he said. â€œI have a resource problem.â€
Until district and state officials find more effective ways to recruit qualified teachers, principals like Rhoden will start their days rushing to put an adult in every classroom.
â€œI donâ€™t know if another pay raise would work to be honest,â€ Rhoden said. â€œI just donâ€™t think thereâ€™s enough teachers out there.â€
(CalMatters.orgÂ is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics).