- Associated Press - Sunday, October 15, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A persistent shortage of substitute teachers is creating challenges for Nebraska and Iowa school districts, and lawmakers who want to address the issue are still trying to pinpoint a solution.

Lawmakers from both states said the problem is most severe in rural districts. In Nebraska, senators convened a hearing last month to look for ways to minimize the time regular teachers spend out of the classroom.

“When you’re in small-town Nebraska, you don’t have a big group of substitute teachers,” said Nebraska state Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “We need to widen the pool.”

The shortage stems from a combination of trends, Groene said. Mandatory training days during the school week draw many regular teachers out of their classrooms, forcing schools to hire substitutes. Family leave policies allow teachers to take off up to 12 weeks at a time, and school administrator say many young teachers take advantage of the full allotment.

Iowa and Nebraska’s low unemployment rates also play a role because workers don’t have to settle as often for part-time jobs, Groene said. Additionally, the Internal Revenue Service requires a separation period for teachers who recently retired but are interested in returning to the classroom part-time as substitutes.

The Nebraska Department of Education took a step to address the problem earlier this year when it doubled the number of days a so-called “local substitute teacher” can work, from 45 to 90. Local substitute teachers don’t have to meet the same standards as regular substitutes who hold a teaching certificate.

More than 7,000 substitute teachers worked in Nebraska schools last year, filling in for teachers about 274,000 times, according to the state Department of Education. David Jespersen, a department spokesman, said those figures include substitutes who worked for part of a day as well as regular full-time teachers who fill in for their colleagues.

A leading Iowa school group said it also has seen anecdotal evidence of a substitute teacher shortage, although exact numbers aren’t known. One suspected factor is a relatively new leadership program that partners experienced teachers with newer ones, said Jean Hessberg, a spokeswoman for the Iowa State Education Association.

“What it did was pull that (experienced) teacher out of their classroom,” Hessberg said.

Iowa created an alternative licensing program for substitute teachers several years ago in an effort to increase their ranks, but rural parts of the state continue to struggle with a shortage, said Iowa state Sen. Amy Sinclair, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

“It really is a problem,” Sinclair said. “There just aren’t the people to fill those spots.”

Groene said the situation in Nebraska doesn’t appear to be as bad in Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney, which have University of Nebraska campuses. The cities of Chadron, Peru and Wayne also rely on recent graduates and faculty from their local state colleges, he said.

In western Nebraska, the shortage sometimes forces Sidney Public School officials to disperse elementary school students among other classes. Principals will occasionally help cover for regular teachers who are absent. The district even started running advertisements in the local newspaper to recruit substitutes from nearby communities in Nebraska and Colorado.

“It’s a part-time job, and (substitute teachers) don’t know when they’re going to work,” said Deanna Kantor, the district’s business manager. “Most people want a full-time job so they know they’re going to get a paycheck.”

Kantor said the district’s situation improved somewhat this year because of business closures that have left the area with fewer regular jobs.

North Platte Public Schools in central Nebraska struggle with a shortage of available substitutes and younger teachers who are gone for longer stretches because of pregnancies, said Tami Eshleman, the district’s associate superintendent. Eshleman said the state lowered its standards for substitute teachers more than 20 years ago to address a shortage at the time, but she’s glad officials have maintained minimum education requirements.

“It’s not that our classrooms aren’t covered, because they are,” she said. “But when a teacher is gone, you have to pull some other staff member to cover for them… We want to make sure we don’t compromise the learning experience of our students.”


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