- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - A quick search for “school substitute shortage” brings up news stories from across the country concerning school districts in large metropolitan areas and rural districts where there are fewer substitutes than the teachers who are absent.

And Nebraska isn’t immune to this problem, as Hastings Public Schools is in the middle of what could become a substitute shortage crisis.

“I think we’ve struggled for more than just this year, but this year seems to be at the highest level we’ve ever struggled,” said HPS Superintendent Craig Kautz.

The Hastings Tribune (https://bit.ly/2fG8qgO ) reports on Nov. 14, the district had 39 certificated staff members, or teachers, absent and just 35 substitutes to fill those spots. And Kautz said that was a good day.

The problem, Kautz said, is that he believes the situation will only become direr in the future as more older teachers retire and fewer young teachers come into the job market.

“In some industries, they’re able to automate and work around those things. Education is pretty labor-intensive and requires learned professionals to really carry out the work of the organization,” he said. “I see this as being problematic for some time to come.”

Right now, though, the problem for HPS isn’t necessarily the shortage in the supply of substitutes so much as it is an increase in the demand for them.

The district currently has a list of 51 people on standby to serve as substitutes at any given point, which is down by just four from a year ago.

The absenteeism among staff, Kautz said, can be partially attributed to changes in the policy that allow for teachers to take more personal days without reason along with the increased focus on professional development conferences and classes.

“The key to education is having highly trained, highly skilled teachers. The way they get better all the time is through professional development, so I don’t want to limit that any more than I have to,” Kautz said.

In addition to those one- or two-day absences for illness and professional development days, a big factor in this year’s absenteeism and related substitute shortage has been a higher-than-normal number of women on maternity leave and staff members with other health issues.

Those are the long-term absences that require a substitute to fill in for weeks or months at a time.

Other absences that require substitutes or fill-ins even for a short time are situations when a teacher may leave school early as a sponsor for an athletic event or other school-related activity.

Kautz said the 39 teachers absent one day recently was a high for the district, and while it was lower than the pool of 51 available subs, many of those subs don’t fill in exclusively for HPS.

In an effort to entice more of those substitutes to select openings at HPS, the school district’s Board of Education is slated to increase the per-day salary for substitutes from $116 to $124.

“That will make us basically tied with another organization in this immediate area for the highest rate of daily pay for substitute teachers,” Kautz told the board recently. “I think we need to do it for one thing, also, to tell our teaching staff, ‘We understand the problem and we’re doing everything we can,’ and a gesture of goodwill to our teachers that we are trying to do everything we can while not messing with demand.”

Kautz said gestures of goodwill to the staff are important because absences can have a major impact on the rest of the staff left in the building.

On days when there aren’t enough substitutes to fill all the teaching absences, Kautz said other teachers and administrators will fill in and shift priorities.

At the elementary level, that can mean moving art and music teachers into regular classrooms and eliminating those extra classes on those days.

And while that might not seem like a huge issue, retired HPS second-grade teacher Dianne Conyers said it can have a huge impact on the other teachers.

“We look forward to our plan period where the kids go to music, art or PE,” she said. “It gives us a break and a chance to get things ready or check papers.”

Conyers, who retired in 2012, has been serving as a substitute since that time and has not had many occasions when her students missed their art or music classes. However, it has happened in the past.

Her solution typically is to catch up on lessons or to just spend a little extra time with her students.

“I never feel like I have enough time to just sit and enjoy a good book with them, so we’ll sit down and read for a little bit,” she said. “It depends on what grade you’re in what you’re going to do.”

That is how things are handled on the elementary level. With secondary classes, Kautz said, other middle or high school teachers will help to take over the classes for the absent teacher.

For example, if a history teacher is gone, other social studies teachers will fill in for those classes during their planning periods, which they would have otherwise used to meet with students or plan for their other classes.

In those situations when a teacher is going to be gone for an extended period of time, Kautz said, the district will do its due diligence to try and find the most qualified substitute.

Conyers just completed a long-term sub assignment at Longfellow Elementary in a first-grade room. She plans to take some time off, only subbing one day here and there, until her next long-term assignment begins in late January.

Conyers said she prefers the long-term assignments as she creates a greater connection with kids and feels more like a teacher than a fill-in.

“There’s a lot greater connection,” she said. “These kids are mine now.”

One of the biggest challenges in recent years was finding a long-term substitute for middle school science with the absence of science teacher Jayson Stoddard, who is taking a sabbatical.

“To be honest, I think we got lucky,” Kautz said. “If it had not been for a unique individual who was interested in coming back to teaching, I don’t know what we would have done.

“Where we have former teachers, sometimes it’s pretty seamless and they can perform like our regular teachers would perform.”

With all the strain that is put on teachers when their colleagues are absent, the district has been working to find ways to make the situation as painless as possible.

In talking with subs, Kautz said, he learned they wanted to be treated more nicely and with greater respect when coming into buildings. That is something Kautz said district leaders are addressing along with the pay increase.

The third issue discussed was the fact that many of the subs are retired or have chosen not to be full-time teachers because they want flexibility in their schedules.

“We have to recognize substitutes have to be on call, and it takes special people to be on call like that,” Kautz said.

However, for those substitutes who do want a lot of hours, he said there is no doubt with all the schools in the area that a substitute could work every day of the week if he or she chose.

The HPS board also has discussed other ways to entice substitutes to work for the district by doing things like creating bonuses for subs who work more than a certain number of days in addition to bonuses on Monday and Friday, which are typically days when fewer subs are available.

“I imagine you will see additional work occurring here, and unfortunately you may see at some point where we lower the demand,” Kautz said.

The plan for now is to increase the pay and create a friendlier environment and see what impact that has on the situation.

“We’ll see what these minor modifications do and then evaluate to see if we have to become more aggressive in interventions and changes we make,” he said.

The district may get to the point where it will advertise to let people know that they may qualify for a local substitute certificate.

Currently, the district relies primarily on retired teachers or others with teaching certificates who are not teaching full time. However, as the current demand for subs continues, Kautz said, the district is looking more at the use of those with local sub certificates.

Qualifications for a local certificate, which can be found on the Nebraska Department of Education website, include having several years of college education with a focus on areas like language arts, math and other core subjects.

The NDE issues the local certificate that is only good for the school that requested the person receive it. Additionally, that certificate is only good for 45 days per year. One class period counts for a half day, and three periods count as a full day.

“You burn through those 45 days pretty fast if you are forced to use those people to cover shorter events,” Kautz said.

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Information from: Hastings Tribune, https://www.hastingstribune.com

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