COVID-19 amplifies chronic shortage of substitute teachers

Bus riders at Liberty Elementary School in Canton finish their school day and start their ride home in Cherokee County on Thursday, Sept 2, 2021.  Substitute teachers have become even more difficult to find since the pandemic as the need grows and students are back in class. Cherokee has begun assigning central office workers to classrooms to staff positions when substitutes can't be found. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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Bus riders at Liberty Elementary School in Canton finish their school day and start their ride home in Cherokee County on Thursday, Sept 2, 2021. Substitute teachers have become even more difficult to find since the pandemic as the need grows and students are back in class. Cherokee has begun assigning central office workers to classrooms to staff positions when substitutes can't be found. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

More schools may be forced to temporarily close when sick or quarantined teachers cannot be replaced

The long-running substitute teacher shortage that intensified during the early days of the pandemic last school year may be growing worse as more students return to classrooms amid the surge of COVID-19 driven by the delta variant.

The rise in case counts has led to more teacher absences as they become infected or come in contact with others who are and must quarantine. Meanwhile, the pool of substitute teachers that was already constrained before the pandemic has continued to shrink as substitutes, many of them older, retired teachers, are refusing to enter classrooms.

Staffing shortages have already resulted in temporary school closures and are disrupting classrooms in less visible ways, as students are left in the care of adults who aren’t always skilled teachers.

Mandy Marger’s twins just started their first year of high school in Cherokee County and both told her of long-term teacher absences.

”I would be doubtful that they’re getting as full an education as they could be if they had their certified and assigned teachers teaching their classes,” Marger said.

Her children’s English teacher was absent for nine days, a Cherokee spokeswoman said. Another of her daughter’s teachers was absent for 10 days.

When substitutes cannot be found, it triggers a chain reaction within schools, as staffers get pulled from their regular jobs to fill the gaps.

“We have had some subs that are coming into the building,” said Amber Karasik, a special education teacher at a Gwinnett County elementary school. “It’s never enough to fill all the positions that we have open that day.”

When Karasik took a long-planned day off last month, she learned a substitute for her class had been reassigned to a general education classroom where the teacher also was absent. So her students hadn’t received their supplemental learning that day.

The media specialist and technology coordinator at her school are also being pulled away from their work and into classrooms to substitute teach, Karasik said.

Gwinnett Superintendent Calvin Watts described the substitute shortage as the most significant challenge he faces.

“When we see shortages of our instructional leaders, our support staff, we have to make way for substitutes. What happens when that employee group also has shortages? Those are very real challenges that I know that my colleagues are grappling with as well,” Watts said at a superintendents’ panel hosted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.

Earlier that day, Gwinnett had had 977 requests for substitutes, with 582 of the positions filled. That “fill ratio” of 60% was down from 96% on the first day of school less than four weeks earlier.

The problem exists across metro Atlanta but is not unique to the area.

“I’m hearing that all over the state,” said Robert Costley, who leads Georgia’s advocacy group for superintendents and other school administrators. “I’ve probably heard more about subs in the last two or three weeks than I heard all last year,” he said, adding, “I mean, subs were definitely an issue last year.”

ExplorePandemic worsens substitute teacher shortage in metro Atlanta

Costley, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, thinks the shortage is worse now in part because nearly all kids are back in school rather than behind a computer screen.

Some schools can’t keep enough staff to safely stay open, he said.

It is a growing problem nationally as schools in other states start reopening, said Nicola Soares, president of Kelly Education, a Troy, Michigan-based staffing firm with clients in Georgia and most other states.

“Before the pandemic, we had a massive full-time teacher shortage that’s really been driving the demand for substitute teachers,” Soares said. “The pandemic has only exacerbated that.”

The demand on her substitute pool has been rising sharply. It was already up 23% year over year just before the pandemic and most recently increased by 50%, she said. Meanwhile, there has been a “drastic deterioration” in the pool of willing substitutes.

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Parents of elementary school students: How is your school year going? Have there been quarantines or temporary shutdowns at your child’s school, or has this fall been better than last year? To talk with us about it, send your name and phone number to education@ajc.com.

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No special college degrees are required to substitute teach, so the ideal candidate is a retired teacher with ample skills and experience — someone like Patty Deigan. She retired after 35 years in Illinois and moved to Cherokee County to be near family.

After a year off, she missed the classroom, and started taking short-term jobs there until spring.

She didn’t return this fall. She is vaccinated and is fine with wearing a mask but sees too many people without one in her community and in pictures from the schools that circulate on social media. She’s come this far without contracting COVID-19 and doesn’t like the idea of getting it now.

“I just think in this county there’s too many people who think it’s all a hoax,” Deigan said.

In Gwinnett, another retired teacher, Beverly Fordham, fears entering a classroom in her old school district because a family member in her household is vaccinated but has an autoimmune disorder.

She is vaccinated too, but even people who are can contract the disease and spread it.

“I know what can happen with COVID, and so we just don’t want to go there,” Fordham said.

She worries about the level of infection in Gwinnett overall and thinks parents have not taken it seriously enough, exposing their children to the risk of infection in sleepover parties and on vacations.

The loss of such substitute teachers is driving a bidding war.

Fulton County Schools nearly doubled its substitute teacher pay last year, raising the daily rate to $175, up from $100. In May, the district said it would maintain the increase through next May. A spokesman attributed the decision to the “competitive market for talent.”

The Cobb County School District announced last week that it was increasing substitute teacher pay starting this week. It will rise by $100 to $189 a day through May. Atlanta Public Schools is offering a $500 bonus to substitutes who work 30 consecutive days.

In Cherokee, Superintendent Brian Hightower increased the daily rate by 25%, to $150 effective this week. “The increase is to remain competitive with neighboring systems as they have increased rates,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

The district had 219 teachers absent on Aug. 31, more than double the 100 absences a day that were typical before the pandemic, the spokeswoman wrote. Absenteeism rose because teachers had COVID-19 or had to quarantine because of a case in their household, she added.

Four out of five of those absences were covered by substitute teachers, but the rest were filled with teachers from other classes or with building staff. The district also assigned 80 central office employees — half of them without teaching credentials — to rotate through classrooms.

Cherokee uses a service that connects college students with temp work and recently blanketed Kennesaw State University with emailed solicitations to work.

“Our school district is currently looking for substitute teachers,” said one that went to a nursing student who asked not to be identified. “You do not have to be a teacher or be graduated from college to do it.”


Substitute teacher incentives

Some metro Atlanta school districts are offering increased pay and bonuses to fill substitute teacher positions.

  • Atlanta Public Schools offering $500 bonus for substitutes who work 30 consecutive days.
  • Cherokee County Schools increased its daily rate from $120 to $150
  • Cobb County Schools increased its daily rate from $89 to $189
  • Fayette County Schools increased its daily rate from $80 to $100 per day for substitutes who work more than 40 days in a school year
  • Fulton County Schools increased its daily rate from $100 to $175
  • Henry County Schools increased its daily rate to $110

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