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In-Person Schools Are Having A Major Substitute Teacher Shortage & Staffing Crisis

Spencer Tritt

Illinois has had a shortage of teachers for years now, and that extends to substitutes. But, during the pandemic, that pool of subs has dwindled even further. That made it challenging for in-person schools to have socially-distanced classrooms staffed at all.

Chris Mehochko is the regional superintendent for Kendall and Grundy counties. Regional education offices serve as the hub for subs, helping them with licensing and background checks.

It’s forced schools to be beyond flexible. When a teacher needs to quarantine for a few days because of potential COVID-19 exposure, there’s not much lead time. Others might simply be burnt out and need a day off.

“Since the pandemic, we've definitely had some major issues here to the point where right now I know some districts that are using principals and assistant principals to cover classes, and some district office admin are out in buildings covering classes and helping out,” Mehochko said.

Chris Tennyson is the assistant regional superintendent of Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties. He said districts got permission from the Illinois State Board of Education to have non-certified people in the classroom to help answer kids’ questions while their everyday teacher “Zooms” in remotely from home.

“Let's say in a school district it has given them the ability to take cafeteria staff or boss staff that don't have an educator license, but they obviously are district employees that have passed the background check and are good with being in the building and have them help out some other areas,” said Tennyson.

Many substitutes just don’t feel safe coming in to teach. That’s according to Amanda Christensen. She’s the regional superintendent in DeKalb County.

They might be busy at home helping their own kids with remote learning or lack the childcare to leave for the day.

Christensen said another reason is that a large portion of their subs are retired educators.

“I've had some retired teachers tell me that because of their at-risk health and their age, they don't feel like they should be subbing right now,” she said.

Tennyson said according to an annual survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents, 67% of Illinois school districts say they’re experiencing a sub shortage. And nearly half of the districts say they have a very serious shortage.

As Amanda Christensen puts it, “There's a greater drain on the system, and we certainly are not keeping up with the need.”

She said they had 350 different subs last year. Right now, that number is at 189. In a normal year, they sometimes have a surge of subs in January because graduating education students need work before getting a full-time position.

It’s not clear if that will happen this year with many districts moving remotely until at least early 2021.

Rockford Public Schools recently announced a shift to remote learning. At a board meeting, teachers' union president Mel Gilfillan said many schools could barely function because of a lack of staffing.

Teachers said that 10% to 25% of staff were out either sick or quarantined in some buildings. RPS also reported their first COVID-19 outbreak among staff at Spring Creek Elementary.

The dearth of substitutes is often more pronounced at rural schools that may have a hard time paying their subs enough to risk coming in-person.

“There was some discussion on our Zooms about what are all the districts paying their substitutes,” said Mehochko. “Some districts have had to make adjustments, trying to keep up with the pay so they can be competitive and draw a couple more substitutes to their list.”

If and when schools do go back in-person, admins say there are a few things the State can do to help ease the shortage. For one, they want Illinois to allow educators with a short-term substitute teaching license to do long-term subbing.

According to Mehochko, short-term subs can’t be in a specific class for more than five days in a row.

“One of our districts has a leave of absence coming up starting in January, and they just cannot find the sub to fill that. But she does have a short-term sub that would be willing to do it,” he said.

Amanda Christensen says districts desperately need “utility players” -- people able to help at any class and grade level.

“Quarantines can knock out an entire grade level, an entire wing, entire job classifications. And those are the things that we just don't have a large enough pool,” said Christensen.

But many schools are going to be online for the time being, and schools need subs who know how to do remote learning as well.

In Kendall and Grundy counties, Mehochko said they’ve been providing some substitute teachers with training and technology to take on those tasks.

Other regional admins said they haven’t provided similar training.

Everyone agrees the teacher shortage isn’t going away anytime soon, even after the pandemic recedes. A recent surveyfrom the Illinois Education Association found that COVID-19 has caused more than a third of teachers to consider leaving the profession altogether.