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Colorado substitute teacher shortage worsened by coronavirus

Colorado school districts are scrambling to figure out how to cover teacher absences and where to find more subs.

DENVER (AP) – Alamosa School District is so short on educators that all it might take is the quarantine of a single class to leave many kids without a teacher.

That’s largely because the southern Colorado district of 2,178 students is battling a significant K-12 substitute teacher shortage. Coronavirus fears have chased a large percentage of the sub pool away, Interim Superintendent Marsha Cody said.

“We actually need more subs than ever before, when we have less,” Cody said.

It’s a problem other Colorado districts can sympathize with as the state faces a substitute teacher shortage that also reflects a burgeoning teacher shortage. The pandemic is only making it worse. In Denver Public Schools, the largest district in Colorado, a little more than half of the teachers active in the substitute pool said they were willing to take in-person assignments this fall.

Now, districts are scrambling to figure out how to cover teacher absences and where to find more subs. And they’re being forced to get creative.

In one district, parents are raising their hands to sub to help prevent a shortage. Other districts, including Alamosa, are looking within, at their own teacher and paraprofessional workforce, offering a financial incentive to those staff members who step up and fill in when needed. And in some districts, administrators who still hold a teaching license are adding the role of substitute to their many responsibilities.

The state’s substitute teacher shortage isn’t far off from a crisis, said Kallie Leyba, president of both the American Federation of Teachers Colorado and the Douglas County Federation.

“We’re not there yet, but I think it’s right around the corner,” Leyba said.

It’s not clear exactly how many subs Colorado’s 178 school districts need this school year. The Colorado Department of Education does not collect any substitute placement information, spokesman Jeremy Meyer said. All subs are locally hired and assigned by districts, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services and charter schools.

But the shortage of subs has been an issue for several years in Colorado. Leyba last taught during the 2012-13 school year and recalls the shortage impacting classrooms then.

It’s growing this fall as the pandemic sidelines many older substitutes.

“A good portion of our substitute teachers are retired teachers, and so they are also the people who are at a higher risk for complications from COVID just because of their age,” Leyba said. “So many of them are not able to take that risk by going into a school building with a bunch of kids and exposing themselves.”

The risk is only enhanced by substitutes not operating within a school’s cohorting system. Many Colorado schools are using cohorting this fall to contain groups of students: Smaller groups of students stick together and avoid interacting with other groups to lessen the chances of exposure.

Because their jobs require them to move from classroom to classroom, substitutes are “breaking those cohorts just left and right,” Leyba said.

Other factors are compounding the substitute shortage, creating a complicated scenario in which districts have an increased need for subs at the same time they’re up against a decreased supply, she said. One of those factors: new requirements that teachers take sick days for symptoms that in the past wouldn’t demand that they stay home.

For example, if a teacher has a cold or bad allergies, they must err on the side of caution and avoid coming to school this year, just in case they have the coronavirus. They can’t return to the classroom until they’ve taken a COVID-19 test and received a negative result.

Additionally, under guidelines from the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, teachers who were exposed to the virus in their school or community must take time off to quarantine, even if they’re technically healthy, Leyba said.

The union president worries that some Colorado schools will have to close to in-person learning when teacher positions can’t be covered by substitutes.

“I think we’ll hit the tipping point where we can’t stay open,” she said.

– “All hands on deck”

Alamosa’s substitute teacher shortage isn’t a new problem, but the numbers this year are particularly troublesome. The sub pool has been sliced in half to 25, Cody said.

Before the pandemic, the shortage of subs was influenced, in part, by the low pay. The Alamosa district pays subs who are retired teachers $110 per day. Subs who have a bachelor’s degree and are licensed teachers or have a substitute teaching license receive $100 per day, and subs who have a high school diploma and their substitute teaching license are paid $90 per day.

The time and effort it takes to get a substitute teaching license is also a barrier, Cody said.

Similar deterrents contributed to Denver Public Schools having vacancies in its classrooms before the pandemic. Working as a substitute teacher is a tough job, said Katie Clymer, executive director of talent for the district. It’s especially challenging, she said, for a sub to come into a classroom and build community with students they don’t know.

As DPS, with about 92,000 students and 160 district-run schools, transitioned to remote learning in the spring as a result of the pandemic, the district removed about 450 inactive subs from its roster. That left about 750 substitutes, Clymer said. From that pool, about 400 are willing to work in person this fall, according to a survey conducted over the summer.

The most successful schools bring their subs – DPS calls them “guest teachers” – into their community and essentially treat them like any teacher. DPS allows individual schools to hire and retain additional staff who are used as guest teachers, which a few have done. Working consistently in the same building helps provide job stability for subs and, because they’re familiar and readily available, creates the opportunity to earn more. Guest subs can even qualify for health insurance through the district if they work at least 20 hours a week.

DPS guest teachers who are new to the district earn $118 per day. The pay increases to $150 per day after 50 days. Retired teachers earn $128 per day, which rises to $164 per day after working 50 days.

There are other hurdles to building up a full force of DPS guest teachers. Some subs want to work near their homes or in schools where they previously taught. Some are willing to teach only specific grade levels, Clymer said. DPS also often needs guest teachers who can teach in Spanish for English language learners.

Even with subs available, it’s not as simple as placing any guest teacher into any school.

Because of health guardrails provided by Denver Public Health and guidelines the district has adopted around cohorting and the number of adults who can interact with a group, guest teachers will only be allowed to work at one school, Clymer said. Schools are going to have to be thoughtful about how they use each guest teacher so that they can still adhere to all the cohorting guidelines.

Additional guidelines allow only four adults to be assigned to a cohort of students at any given time. DPS is recommending that schools include a guest teacher as one of those four people, Clymer said.

The district has assigned at least one guest teacher to every school, and two to some schools, she said, and it continues to hire more guest teachers. As the pool increases, DPS is prioritizing placing them in early childhood education schools since they opened to students first. Elementary schools are another focus since they’re also opening to kids sooner, followed by attention to larger schools where higher numbers of staff could potentially be out for absences related to being quarantined, or not related to COVID-19 at all.

Before the pandemic, DPS was typically able to fill about 90% of the classrooms that needed subs on any given day. The district doesn’t have a firm target number of guest teacher positions it’s now looking to fill, Clymer said. “We could easily take another 300-400 … if not even more.”

In Alamosa, where retired teachers overwhelmingly decided not to return to the substitute corps this year, the district will pay teachers an additional $25 to forgo their planning period and sub in a classroom where needed, said Cody, the interim superintendent.

It’s not an ideal solution, she said, as teachers rely on that time to plan their own lessons.

This fall, the district also introduced a stipend for experienced paraprofessionals willing to step in as subs. Alamosa will pay any paraprofessional who has been hired in the district and worked for 90 days $100 to cover the cost of getting a substitute license.

It’s another way to tackle the severe sub shortage, Cody said, but it’s also not a perfect approach as the district would like to see them supporting students in their cohort, including students learning English or those needing extra help.

There are “no great answers right now,” Cody said.

To try to help subs willing to teach this fall feel ready for classes, Alamosa offered a paid half-day training for subs to brief them on how to navigate the technology the district is using and on all the health precautions the district’s schools have in place, including one-way hallways, masks and cohorting.

Cody is particularly worried about the ripple effect of quarantining a class that has elective teachers, such as those teaching music, art or computer science, attached to it. All of those teachers would need to quarantine, too.

“That can create a big shortage very, very quickly,” Cody said. She added that if multiple cohorts were to shut down, the district would need many subs immediately.

Alamosa has already had to quarantine cohorts twice this year. During the first quarantine, which happened during the first week of school, part of a cohort had to quarantine. Luckily, many students were learning remotely at that time, Cody said, and the district had enough subs to cover while some teachers also taught through Zoom. During the second quarantine, one cohort had to be shut down and the district didn’t have enough subs to cover. The cohort was released from quarantine after two-and-a-half school days, she said, but during that time staff members came forward to help. Some elective teachers who were quarantined connected to classrooms for instruction over Zoom. Those few days of quarantine brought the district’s substitute shortage into full view.

Other districts have taken a similar approach to making do without enough subs. Gunnison Watershed School District RE1J lost some of its subs this year because of COVID-19, said Lisa Danos, co-president of Gunnison County Education Association. To help prevent a district shortage, many parents who would normally never sub have stepped up.

The parents want to make sure that students’ education isn’t interrupted because of the virus, Danos said.

With the potential of needing many more subs this year than in the past, the district could face a shortage, she said. The district has advertised for subs more this year than it normally does and may give a small pay increase to attract and retain them.

Liz Mick, co-president of the union, said the district has also streamlined the application process to make it simpler for people who might be interested in subbing.

When the pandemic hit last spring, Gunnison provided a bonus to its regular subs as a way to show appreciation for the work of teachers who suddenly lost income. Mick described it as “a kind gesture of our district” for subs, who are “terribly underpaid.”

Douglas County School District is also boosting pay for subs through December, and high-level administrators who still hold an active teaching license have volunteered to fill subbing gaps if needed, said Leyba, of AFT Colorado and the Douglas County Federation.

It’s essentially an “all-hands-on-deck situation where everyone knows that they may need to step into the classroom and we have to put the needs of the classroom first above everything else in the district right now,” she said.

– Ready to return

The Colorado Department of Education also is working to bring more subs into the system by developing a substitute recruitment page that gives instructions on how to apply for a substitute credential and links to districts that are looking, department spokesperson Meyer said. Additionally, CDE is collaborating with the state’s educator preparation programs to spread the message that in some cases, student teachers can serve as substitutes.

Not all retirees who have subbed in Colorado have opted out of teaching in the classroom this year. Catherine Salazar, a retired DPS teacher who taught for the district for 35 years, has been subbing for about 10 years, covering classes in five schools including Thomas Jefferson High School, where she taught design and sculpture for most of her career.

She hasn’t been back to a DPS classroom since March 13, when the pandemic changed the district’s plans. But she plans to return to the classroom in mid-October, when all students are scheduled to be back to in-person learning, if she’s needed.

“I just think the kids need to be there,” Salazar said. “The kids need to be with their teachers, their school, their friends.”

She’s remained cautious throughout the pandemic, consistently wearing a mask and washing her hands repetitively, and she isn’t worried about stepping inside a school. Salazar said she has found a sense of belonging with kids and teachers who know her as a familiar face.

“You feel like you’re part of the faculty, kind of, when you’re at the same school all the time,” she said.

Dennis McCormick shares Salazar’s enthusiasm to return to students. McCormick, who is retired after working in energy, is heading into his seventh year as a substitute teacher for DPS. Many members of McCormick’s family taught school, including his mother, father and two sisters along with some of his aunts, uncles and nieces.

That family background, along with McCormick’s own interest in education, compelled him to begin subbing. He’s taught at 70 or 80 DPS schools.

Like Salazar, McCormick subbed up until the pandemic shutdown. He’s not hesitant about being back in a classroom this year.

“Perhaps,” he joked, “I haven’t thought it through enough.”