District substitute teacher shortage heightens during pandemic

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By Aditi Dahagam, Co-Web Content Editor

Like many districts nationwide, T/E School District faces a substitute teacher shortage with the recent increase in staff absenteeism and precautionary measures due to the pandemic. TESD substitute coordinator Kim Thomsen explains that although the shortage has been occurring for several years, COVID-19 has added extra challenges and requirements for substitutes.

The need for teachers in Pennsylvania has increased due to a drop in the number of teaching certifications issued by the state Department of Education as a result of fewer students graduating from teaching programs. School districts in the state have been trying to resolve this issue by hiring retired teachers, but since retirees are not allowed to be employed by a public school and receive a Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System pension at the same time (with some exceptions), few retirees from the state returned to substituting. Retirees also face the challenge of navigating the new teaching environments if they return.

“I think some of them chose to not sub this year due to the hybrid model, which can be difficult if you aren’t accustomed to it or haven’t been doing it consistently over the past few months,” Conestoga daily substitute Helena Ryder said.

According to Thomsen, although the number of registered district substitutes remains close to that of previous years, there are fewer actively working. Strict safety protocols, daily health screenings during hybrid instruction and new technologies make working difficult. In addition, it’s hard to maintain a steady staff because the substitute roster changes frequently.

“The position of substitute teacher(s) is often a transient one. Recent graduates are looking for full-time jobs, and others choose the position for the flexible schedule it offers, creating an ever-changing substitute resource,” Thomsen said. 

Unlike the substitute pool, Conestoga’s 60-70 regular education and special education aide count remains constant because aide needs are identified at the start of the school year. Assistant Principal James Bankert says he hasn’t seen a reduction of applicants during the pandemic and that many previous aides returned to teaching at the start of the school year.

“The aides, like teachers and other support staff members, have been incredibly flexible during the pandemic,” Bankert said. “Many that I have spoken to have shared that they know how difficult the situation is for so many students and want to go above and beyond to help.”

Despite the added requirements this year, Ryder continues to serve as a substitute because of her love for teaching. Ryder feels safe teaching in the classroom during hybrid instruction because of masks, social distancing and plexiglass in front of teachers’ desks.

“I think everyone, students and staff alike, knows how important it is to follow the guidelines to ensure we are doing our best to be safe,” Ryder said.

To help substitutes adjust to the new hybrid learning environment, the district assigned teachers to specific schools so they can become familiar with the teachers, staff, resources and students. Ryder explains that this system is easier than substituting at multiple schools.

“I think it’s a good way for (substitutes) to feel more comfortable since you only have to learn the layout of one school as opposed to many,” Ryder said. “I think it’s also beneficial for students because it’s nice to have a semi-familiar face when your teacher is out.”

Additionally, the district created a substitutes’ Microsoft Teams, an online platform for virtual synchronous instruction, teaching guide and offers technical help through the Tech Deck when needed. 

“The (Microsoft) Teams Road Map is a helpful guide to accessing and conducting virtual classes using Teams. It is important that substitutes have the ability to teach students virtually and, in the classroom, and that they feel technology support is available,” Thomsen said.

For future improvements, the district plans to increase the number of substitutes and continue providing them assistance with technical difficulties. For now, the district continues to work through staffing and substitute issues as they arise.

“When we are presented with challenges, we do the best we can with the resources we have.  The pandemic has revealed our resourcefulness,” Thomsen said. “Each day, we will find solutions to the challenges as they are presented.”