Public schools across the country have been temporarily closing their doors and canceling classes this holiday season — not to recognize any religious observance but to manage a shortage of substitute teachers.
Several schools in the Seattle area canceled classes last Friday, and Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools will close the day before Thanksgiving. Eastpointe Community Schools in Michigan moved its middle schools back to remote instruction last week. Meanwhile, school systems from California to Texas are offering more money to attract substitute teachers.
A scarcity of substitute teachers compounds a national labor shortage that has forced businesses and agencies to scramble and compete for workers as the economy regains its footing after pandemic-related closures and mandates.
Jim Politis, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, said the shortage reflects “people questioning the old standards that apply to the job.”
“Substitute teachers feel they don’t get much respect, they know they don’t get much pay and they know that sometimes the job is difficult,” Mr. Politis, a substitute teacher in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools, told The Washington Times.
Mr. Politis, 81, said that retired teachers like himself have kept many school systems afloat during the pandemic. He retired from full-time teaching in 1999 after 32 years.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that staffing shortages before COVID-19 “and the pandemic has only made them more acute.”
“Between the increased stress of the job and the loss of one million jobs in public education earlier in the pandemic, schools are still struggling to find staff, particularly nurses, guidance counselors and bus drivers,” Ms. Weingarten said in an email.
Before the pandemic, she said, “teachers were facing a lack of respect on the job, routinely taking money out of their own pockets for classroom supplies while at the same time paying student loans and cobbling together multiple jobs to make ends meet.
“Now, they’re confronted with the exhaustion and burnout of the last few years,” said Ms. Weingarten, leader of the nation’s second-largest teachers union.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, the national average pay for substitute educators is about $105 per full day. Some substitutes also receive benefits.
The national average pay for full-time teachers was $63,645 in 2019-2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Joyce Rankin, a member of the Colorado State Board of Education, said the teacher shortage reflects broader workforce trends across the country.
“It’s not unlike the need for workers throughout the workforce,” Ms. Rankin told The Times. “You can see this every day as businesses continue to display ‘Help Wanted’ signs. Why should teaching be any different?”
In Colorado, Jefferson County Public Schools have offered a temporary $50-a-day increase in substitute teaching pay for the current school year. Since the basic pay rate starts at $100 a day, the 50% increase “should be an attractive incentive to some,” according to analyst Pam Benigno at the Denver-based Independence Institute.
“Substitute teachers, for too long, have been underpaid and underappreciated,” said Ms. Benigno, director of the libertarian think tank’s Education Policy Center.
But many teacher vacancies remain in Colorado and elsewhere.
Rebecca Friedrichs, founder of the educational reform group For Kids and Country, attributed the crisis in part to “the working conditions put into place by the teacher unions” that push veteran teachers to miss school more often and take early retirement.
“No teacher wants to teach to students online or through a mask,” said Ms. Friedrichs, a 28-year veteran elementary school teacher in Southern California. “Who wants to work in that chaos?”
“I have heard many teachers express frustration, and they are ready to throw in the towel and either quit or retire,” she added.
Erika Sanzi, director of outreach for the nonprofit parental rights group Parents Defending Education, said “the sub shortage is front and center because of the unacceptable number of schools still unable or unwilling to provide in-person learning five days a week.”
“We are seeing national union leaders make the case that teachers are too burnt out and exhausted to come to work five days a week, and that is not going to sit well with parents who continued to go to work throughout the pandemic or had to leave the workforce to oversee ‘Zoom school’ at their kitchen table,” Ms. Sanzi said.
She added that the “lack of subs is not surprising after so many months during which they had no option” to work in-person on campuses already struggling with increases in student behavioral problems and the elimination of school resource officers.
While it may help schools to hire a permanent pool of full-time substitutes with full benefits, Ms. Sanzi said “that is not going to solve anything when so many teachers are out on the same day that a school literally can’t even open.”
To deal with a shortage of more than 300 teachers, the public schools superintendent of Palm Beach County, Florida — the nation’s 10th largest school district — last month instituted a policy requiring all “noninstructional staff,” including administrators, to serve as substitute teachers one day each month. Superintendent Michael Burke, who has a degree in finance, subbed at a West Palm Beach elementary school, WPTV reported.
Some states have tried to grow their substitute pools by dropping requirements for bachelor’s degrees and speeding up the certification process. Missouri last month approved a 20-hour online substitute certification course, while Oregon has temporarily dropped the bachelor’s degree requirement in some cases.
In an Oct. 26 essay for the nonprofit education news source Chalkbeat, former middle school substitute teacher Walt Stallings wrote that many like him quit their jobs last summer when it became clear conditions would not improve in the schools this year.
“After a traumatic and exhausting school year, our wages didn’t allow us any time to recoup. The burnout and frustration in the classrooms was palpable,” wrote Mr. Stallings, now a writing instructor at DePaul University.