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'We're not serving our kids, and we don't really have a choice.' 96% of Illinois school districts don't have enough substitute teachers.

Peter Medlin

Thousands of teachers were forced into quarantine over the past month when an Omicron wave descended on Illinois schools.

But in many districts, there were no substitute teachers to triage the situation until they get back.

Mark Klaisner is a school administrator and president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools or IARSS.

“The domino effect means you've got a measurable percentage of kids in classrooms that are not taught by content specialists or by skilled educators,” he said. “I'm hearing social workers covering for English classes. It’s like, we're not serving our kids. Well, and we don't really have a choice.”

The IARSS has put together an annual report on the state of the teacher shortage in Illinois for several years. The problem has been around since years before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has made it significantly worse.

“It became personal,” said Klaisner. “So, like this past month, we've had numerous districts that closed because they didn't have enough staff to open.”

The teacher shortage came to parents’ front door this year. Or maybe not even that, thanks to the scarcity of school bus drivers.

According to the recent survey, 96% of districts say they have a shortage of substitutes.

“Our data point this year was over 2000 educator openings were either unfilled or they were filled by someone not qualified,” he said.

It’s more challenging than ever to get retired teachers to sub during the pandemic. Back in 2018, the state passed a law making it easier to obtain a short-term substitute license. Many schools rely on short-term subs, but they can only teach the same position up to 10 days.

“If the option is an empty classroom versus somebody who's going to stay at day 11 or day 12? I'm going to be honest and say, if you've got a really good person that's resonating and engaging kids, I'm not gonna be knocking on the door checking,” he said. “I mean, that's the rule, but if you're able to keep the school open, more power to you.”

Klaisner said he’s seen schools send letters home pleading with parents to substitute for $150 dollars a day.

He said there weren’t many takers, but it’s going to take creativity to fix the problem.

Brad Beckner is with Kelly Education, a contracting company that recruits and trains substitute teachers for school districts including Rockford Public Schools.

Because of the pandemic, their training is completely online in small groups and takes about two weeks. New substitutes typically won’t see an in-person classroom until they’re face-to-face with students. But they are trying out an ambassador program in some places like Rockford.

“We can do a buddy-up system," he said, "and really do some job shadowing to give people a little bit more of a preview, if they have any concerns.”

Beckner also said that even though substitute pay is going up in some areas, so are their responsibilities.

“More and more substitute teachers are not coming into the classroom as they historically have to cover for a short-term absence for a teacher,” said Beckner. “Substitute teachers, for all intents and purposes, in today's world are doing exactly what teachers do, but for a lot less pay.”

The well of prospective teachers is drying up. There are far fewer candidates, especially in positions like special education and bilingual teachers.

And many experienced teachers have left the field during the pandemic. Educators say it feeds a vicious cycle: overworked, burnt-out teachers quit the classroom with no one to replace them, leaving the teachers that remain even more overworked – and more likely to burn out themselves.

Klaisner said that to tackle the teacher shortage it’ll take both creativity and financial investments in teachers and substitutes alike.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.