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Schools struggle to cover teacher absences amid worker shortage and pandemic

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School districts across Dane County were experiencing a substitute teacher shortage years before COVID-19, but the pandemic has pushed the system to the brink of a crisis.

Teachers and administrators in Dane County now find themselves strapped for help, often filling in for colleagues who have fallen ill or are required to quarantine due to close contact with a COVID-19 case, during periods normally set aside for class preparation.

“It is a daily battle for us to make sure we have our buildings fully staffed,” said Chad Wiese, assistant superintendent of the Verona School District. “There are days when we are for the most part covered around the district. But there are certainly days we are short subs and we have our own staff covering classes, covering class periods, combining classes because we’re short substitute teachers.”

If Verona High School is down a biology teacher for the day and short on substitute teachers, high school Principal Pam Hammen will attempt to cover classes with another staff member who is certified to teach science instead of using that time as a prep period. The same is true at the elementary level: A teacher with some down time might run across the hall to support a colleague’s class. At times, principals have also stepped in to cover classes.

“It’s obviously a burden on them as well. They could have had other things planned, to prep for class,” Wiese said. “It is every day, when you’re short a sub, kind of putting together the pieces of who a qualified adult would be to help with coverage.”

The much larger Madison School District is also struggling with a substitute teacher shortage.

“We are continuing to recruit to be sure that we are getting viable candidates to be able to fill those positions,” Carlettra Stanford, chief of elementary schools for the Madison School District, said during a Facebook live conversation at the beginning of the school year.

School administrators have occasionally covered classes for teachers when needed, Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said during the Facebook live event.

“It is a shortage at this point, and for the most part we’re responding the best we can,” he said.

The district was able to find substitutes to cover teacher absences 55% of the time in October and 60% of the time in November, district spokesperson Liz Merfeld said. In Madison, substitute teachers make from $163 to $205 per day.

The shortage of substitute teachers has been a problem for the past five years and started in Madison when the district reduced pay and benefits for substitute teachers, said Mike Jones, president of Madison Teachers Inc., one of three unions in the state that support substitute teachers.

“Last year, during the pandemic, there was no work for many substitute teachers, and while some folks got by on unemployment, many had to get other jobs to sustain their livelihoods,” Jones said. “Now the shortage is severe and persistent. The pandemic has exacerbated every problem our schools face, and the staffing situation in many schools is a crisis unlike our members have experienced.”

Al Sowers, vice president of U.S. field operations for Teachers On Call — a company that helps train and place substitute teachers across the country — said the substitute teacher shortage has been worsened by full-time teachers leaving the workforce during the pandemic.

“We’re getting hit on two sides,” he said. “Our demand for substitute teachers from school districts is up substantially.”

In Wisconsin, Sowers is seeing substitute teacher demand up 30% to 40%, but there is a lack of workers to fill that gap.

Substitute teachers make an average of about $120 per day in Wisconsin, Sowers said. He would like to see the pay rate increase to make the job more desirable, and he would like to see post-secondary programs developed to help draw new teachers into the workforce.

Around Dane County

Before the pandemic, schools in Sun Prairie could typically find a substitute 85% to 95% of the times a teacher was absent. But that rate has dropped to 55% to 65%, district spokesperson Patti Lux said.

To make up for the shortage, some classes with absent teachers are being combined with classrooms where a teacher is present, especially at the elementary and middle school level. At the high school level, teachers are forgoing their planning and preparation time to step into other classrooms to provide coverage, she said.

“This puts extra pressure on teachers during an already challenging time,” she said.

The district has increased pay for substitute teachers and created a free training opportunity to be certified as a substitute teacher in an effort to retain the current substitutes and attract new ones.

The Oregon School District is also feeling pressure, due to the current labor market, and staffing for absences has become a challenge because of the small pool of substitute teachers. Other staff members are working together to cover absences as needed, district spokesperson Erika Mundinger said.

In the Monona Grove School District, teachers have given up 700 hours of their own planning time to cover classes for absent colleagues.

“As you can imagine, that number goes up daily. From time to time, classes get split up and are placed in another teacher’s classroom, provided they can still maintain physical distance,” district spokesperson Katy Byrnes Kaiser said. “When teachers give up their planning or prep time, they often end up taking their work home with them or working extended hours at school because that work still needs to be done.”

Statewide problem

The problem is widespread, with districts around the state and the country struggling to cover classrooms each day, said Christina Brey, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state teachers union.

“Teachers are leaving the profession at alarming rates due to unrealistic workloads, low pay and lack of input in school decisions,” she said. “To lessen the need for substitute teachers, educators need to be allowed to negotiate with our employers, to have our professional judgment trusted and to have less focus on standardized test results so we have time to teach.”

The Menominee School District canceled all classes for Thanksgiving week due to a sharp increase in community COVID-19 cases that has caused teachers and support staff to quarantine.

“The district continues to do our best to arrange for substitute employees, but several teachers have been forced to give up a substantial amount of planning time to help fill vacancies,” district administrator Joe Zydowsky said in a note to parents.

“Planning time is needed in the district to prepare lessons, assess student work, and communicate/collaborate with colleagues. Planning time is needed so (district) educators can continue to best serve students moving forward,” he continued.

Instead, the Monday and Tuesday of Thanksgiving week will be used as planning days, he said.

“It is a daily battle for us to make sure we have our buildings fully staffed.”

Chad Weise, assistant superintendent of the Verona School District

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