Substitute teachers weigh risks of going back to school during COVID-19 pandemic
Demand for substitutes expected to be higher than usual as subs ‘hedge their bets’
LEHI — As predictable as a normal school year’s start, Donnalee and Tim Eisenhart have headed back to school in the fall. But COVID-19 may change that for the pair, who both routinely sign up as substitute teachers for Alpine School District.
School is familiar ground: Donnalee taught high school social studies for 39 years before retiring, only to find she misses the classroom and the kids too much to fritter away her days.
Tim directed the district’s foundation until he retired a year ago. Then he, too, joined the ranks of substitute teachers, half joking that he didn’t want to deal with a constant barrage of home projects on his wife’s “honey-do” list.
Mostly, they love teaching because “it’s always interesting,” Tim Eisenhart said.
This year may be unusually interesting as educators, policymakers, parents and others grapple with how to safely return children to classrooms amid a pandemic. Substitute teachers, who are already in high demand and will likely be even more sought after in coming months, add up and subtract the risks and benefits of entering classrooms. The calculation itself varies depending on a substitute teacher’s age and health, and whether the local community has flattened the curve of COVID-19 cases. While the considerations have multiplied, many of the educators remain divided.
The Eisenharts think they’ll go back to the classroom, although Donnalee is considered higher risk for complications should she get COVID-19 because she’s 66 and has asthma. Tim, also 66, is more worried he could bring the illness home to her. But neither rules out returning to the classroom in a couple of weeks.
One of Donnalee Eisenhart’s former student teachers who underwent a kidney transplant is hospitalized with complications. “If he needed me, I would go in and teach for him,” she said. Otherwise, she’s “hedging her bets.”
There are varying degrees of risk for everyone, Tim Eisenhart said, but he is persuaded that the school district has taken precautions to keep teachers and students safe.
“I think you’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to know what the situation is and then just follow the guidelines and see how it goes,” he said.
When Nancy Ballard added up the challenges, she reached a different conclusion. Retired after 30 years at Skyline High School, she returned as a substitute because she missed the students, faculty and staff. But after the sudden halt to in-person instruction in March and the swirl of uncertainty about schools reopening, Ballard does not plan to substitute teach this fall.
She describes herself as a “very healthy” 60 year old, but said she has some concerns about COVID-19 spread in schools — and even more about schools’ increasing reliance on technology.
Teacher friends say most lessons and student work will be on digital platforms.
“That’s just a different world for me to keep up a Canvas page as a sub. It’s just not possible,” she said.
Ballard said she worries about the growing demands on teachers and the impacts they’ll have on students and learning.
“You always worry about the kids. You always want them to do well regardless. It’s just all the new technology that’s been thrown at teachers, all the responsibility and the lack of training in this short amount of time.
“I’m hoping things will settle down again enough that I could go back and do the long-term jobs,” she said.
Many school districts are laboring to recruit substitute teachers as the start of the academic year approaches. COVID-19 is a new layer of worry for human resource directors who need a pool of substitute teachers at the ready in case of other illness, injury, bereavement leave, family emergencies or while teachers undergo training.
Some school reopening plans reduce the pressure, like Jordan School District’s plan for students to learn online on Fridays.
“That’s one less day that we would need substitute teachers,” said district spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf. Jordan is assigning each school an extra aide for 25 hours a week, which could also reduce demand for substitute teachers, she added.
Look up job opportunities on any Utah school district website and there are multiple openings for substitute teachers.
Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney said 150 people have signed up to substitute teach for the district, although they aren’t under contract and are free to accept or decline assignments. Some substitutes are on lists in several school districts.
“As for covering classes in this uncertain year, the folks who are in the central office have been put on notice that they may be asked to lead a class for a day or two if we need extra help in the schools,” Haney said.
The district will provide substitute teachers with masks and there will be hand sanitizer in every classroom, along with training so they know the district’s expectations to keep students and staff safe.
The district’s plan calls for schools to be cleaned thoroughly throughout the day with hospital-grade sanitizers and disinfectants.
While the district hopes its pay is competitive — it pays licensed substitute teachers up to $129 a day — it is preparing for all contingencies, he said.
School districts nationwide know they’ll need substitute teachers and are hoping that rigorous safety measures will soothe some worries. Some districts are also boosting pay.
In Fairhaven, Massachusetts, for example, the school district significantly raised the rate it will pay substitute teachers this coming year. The daily rate for certified substitute teachers nearly doubled, from $85 to $165 a day, while noncertified subs will receive $115 instead of $75.
One of the goals was reducing the number of people entering the building by encouraging people to substitute at specific schools, according to South Coast Today. Teachers will be hired as “building substitutes” and fill in as needed.
In Utah, Granite School District is taking a similar approach, assigning teachers to one or two schools to help minimize possible infection and to facilitate contact tracing if there is an outbreak, said district spokesman Ben Horsley.
The district has never before guaranteed that substitutes will work in a certain school or area, but this year it seeks substitutes who live nearby “simply by virtue of the fact that we need subs everywhere.”
In a pandemic, moving around is a big deal. Typically, unless a substitute is filling a long-term vacancy, he or she might be at different schools most days. That could boost both exposure to the coronavirus and the opportunity to inadvertently spread it, said Amanda von Moos, co-founder and managing director of Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit focused on improving substitute teaching.
“I think this is a year to really think about school-based subs and not have them going from school to school,” she said.
As a bonus, working often in one school provides a chance for substitutes to get to know the students and the school culture. It makes overcoming some of the pandemic’s natural challenges, like social distancing and online classes, a little easier.
Substitute teachers enjoy the job more and are better at it when they get to know students and develop trust, said von Moos. “All of those are extra important this year. The value of relationships is really amplified.”
Unique sub challenges
Nationwide, back-to-school plans are a hodgepodge, said von Moos. “The districts we’re talking to are all over the map in terms of what they’re anticipating.”
Some of the challenges will be technical — and technological. Teaching is very different when it’s done online, said von Moos.
Substitutes may need to learn to use equipment that’s unfamiliar or programs that teachers use routinely, but that aren’t familiar to substitutes, who may not get adequate training. “In most schools, day-to-day subs didn’t use the classroom technology so they aren’t familiar with what’s already being used and now districts are using more. That’s a specific training challenge. And managing classrooms over technology is tricky, especially when you don’t know the students, she said.
In-person instruction and hybrid teaching are tricky, too.
Substitute teachers reflect that when they talk about their jobs and their plans, said von Moos. In interviews this spring, she said many told her they were heartbroken about not being able to do the job this year, often expressing worry and concern about the kids they’ve taught in other years.
“These are such hard questions,” said von Moos, “and they’re hard questions on top of a lot of other hard questions.”
Kelly Education commissioned a survey by EdWeek Research Center, polling more than 2,000 principals, district leaders and school board members who said that teacher absences even before COVID-19 hit have been higher than five years ago. According to the report, reasons included low teacher morale, a desire for more flexibility to help work/life balance and professional development during school hours.
But the majority of those surveyed also said substitutes are filling permanent teacher vacancies and that the need for substitute teachers will continue to grow.
The pandemic may provide more substitutes in the short term, because lots of people who lost jobs could sign up. When the economy recovers, the shortfall is apt to be even bigger.
Who subs varies greatly depending on the area, the school and who lives nearby. College towns frequently have recent graduates who sub while they look for a long-term teaching job, said von Moos. Some retirees want to earn a little extra income or stay active without working full time. Most states don’t require special credentials for substitute teachers, so they come from different backgrounds and bring with them different experiences and skills. Substitute teaching is even part of a gig-economy approach to life that pairs with other part-time jobs.
Because substitute teaching doesn’t often include health care benefits, the idea of getting sick is potentially scary for those considering helping out during COVID-19.
A lot of them are caretakers to frail or disabled spouses or children — and those for whom they care could be high-risk should a substitute teacher bring COVID-19 home, she added.
Kelly Education maintains a roster of 80,000 active substitutes who work in more than 10,000 schools in 41 states each year.
The vast majority have concerns about COVID-19, she said. Older substitute teachers worry about what happens if they become ill. Younger substitute teachers may have child care issues, in addition to other COVID-19-related pressures.
This week, about 200 Utah substitutes gathered online to ask Brittna Valenzuela, a Kelly senior vice president, about local plans. They wanted to know everything from how shared Chromebooks were going to be cleaned between users to whether substitute teachers would be assigned to particular schools for the duration of the pandemic.
Joseph Fitzgerald, vice president of operations for Utah and New Mexico for ESS, a national education staffing company based in Knoxville, Tennessee, that works with 60,000 substitute and permanent employees in 28 states, said some retirees who worked as substitute teachers are reticent to return to schools due to the coronavirus, while younger job seekers are considering substituting as a job opportunity “so they’re coming forward and they’re applying.”
ESS has contracts with the Alpine, Tooele, Ogden and Washington school districts and a public charter school in Utah. Its substitutes range in age from 18 to one 90-year-old, although many are 50 and older and have retired from teaching or other careers.
“They want to have an opportunity to make a little extra money. I also see that they’re more about giving back to the community than making money,” Fitzgerald said.
Some are college students in teacher education programs or are interested in becoming teachers.
Alpine School District spokesman David Stephenson said the district, the largest in the state, benefits from its proximity to Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University. If a college student doesn’t have a class on a Thursday and a Friday, they can substitute teach if they meet requirements.
Show me the money
Substitute teaching isn’t financially lucrative, with the national average about $100 a day, according to the Kelly report.
Certified teachers and college graduates are typically paid more than people with no credentials.
Some districts will hire 18-year-old high school graduates, although they tend not to hire them in high schools until they are 21. Some require college degrees, but much depends on the available labor pool.
Many substitute teachers interviewed by the Deseret News said the job has other perks. Subs work as much as they want. Except for those who accept long-term substitute assignments, they have significant control over their schedules.
Granite School District recently raised its substitute teacher pay 5% and will pay certified teachers $107 a day. Park City School District, the highest-paying district in the state for full-time educators, pays licensed substitute teachers $123 a day. Some districts also offer stipends to substitutes who take long-term assignments.
Ballard, a retired teacher who has a master’s degree and 60 credit hours on top of that, said “the pay isn’t great” but there are other rewards.
“It was more I just enjoyed the kids,” she said.
The same is true for Donnalee Eisenhart. She loved teaching and working with student government leaders, the National Honor Society, debate team and even cheerleading one year when no one else stepped up to coach.
It also suits her passion as a lifelong learner. She enjoys rereading literature that students are assigned. Although she specialized in social studies, she has stretched her wings as a substitute teacher.
“I found out that I can do math, which I didn’t know,” she said
Returning to the classroom
Randy O’Hara, who’s entering his fourth year as a substitute teacher for Canyons School District, said he has no hesitation about returning this fall.
“I’m incredibly excited to get back into the classroom,” said O’Hara, 43.
Although COVID-19 presents challenges, O’Hara said he believes the school district has put a lot of thought and resources into its reopening plans to help ensure schools will be safe learning and working environments.
“Honestly, it’s a lot of fun. I love being in the classroom with the students. From a selfish perspective, it’s incredibly convenient. I don’t have any real commitments so if I need to take a day off or a week off even, I can do so. ... I pick up assignments as I choose and so it’s really convenient for me and where I am at in life right now.”
O’Hara said he has consistently worked in a handful of junior highs and high schools so students and teachers know him and he gets a lot of support from other teachers and administrators.
If he has a student whom he has difficulty reaching, he asks other teachers who also teach the student for approaches that work for them.
“I’ve never felt that if I ask for help that help’s not there because it always is. It’s great,” he said.
All hands on deck
Granite School District’s Horsley said the district has more than 650 substitutes ready for assignments.
“But at the end of the day, we don’t know how many of those are just not going to accept assignments in a COVID year, so we’re looking to expand our substitute pool as much as possible. We’ve even looked at hiring additional contract subs. These are full-time substitutes that get benefits and work just like a teacher would and can be assigned in more long-term situations,” he said.
Valenzuela said the forced absence from classrooms has ignited some passion in substitutes to get back to working directly with kids. But it’s fanned fears, too. They worry about having adequate personal protective equipment and whether good safety protocols will be in place.
Schools are doing a lot to alleviate risk, Valenzuela said. “I feel like they’re making every effort.” Substitute teachers are critical to education, said Valenzuela, who calls them essential workers “because they are going to be so critical to our schools.”
Horsley said Granite School District has made it clear to its employees they need to be nimble and ready to pitch in where needed.
“We just had our principal training a few days ago. We made it clear that this was an all-hands-on-deck situation. We fully expect that there will be circumstances which require district-level personnel to go out and help and assist our schools because that’s what we’re all here for,” he said.
O’Hara said he appreciates that educators and students will encounter a lot of change as they return to school, and as result, higher levels of anxiety.
“I just look at this as, OK, I can come in and I can show that anxiety to the students or I can come in and I can show confidence and help them along and make sure that they’re OK. Ultimately that’s what my goal is, to walk in and make the students just feel safe as they can be in the uncertain world that we’re in.”