Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

With Omicron, Schools Are Literally Running Out of Teachers

Thousands of teachers are staying home for a week or more at a time. Desperate states are raising pay, changing certification standards and even sending in the National Guard.

Young schoolchildren leaving a building in a line with a teacher.
At Laurel Hill Elementary School in Hanover Park, Ill., music teacher Lynne Schefke, who normally works at Huff Elementary School in Elgin, dismisses her students after substitute teaching in a dual language kindergarten classroom on Jan. 4, 2022. A surge of COVID-19 cases forced Elgin-based Unit School District 46 to close five of its 57 schools due to staffing shortages, including Huff Elementary.
(TNS/Chicago Tribune)
It’s been nearly 20 years since Krestin Bahr was a full-time teacher, but lately she’s been spending lots of time in the classroom. Bahr is superintendent of the Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Wash., across Puget Sound from Seattle. Her district is desperately short of substitutes to fill in for teachers out with COVID-19, so Bahr — along with other central office staff, counselors and community members, including a distillery owner — have all been filling in. “Everybody’s helping out,” she says. “It’s all hands on deck.”

Her situation may be desperate, but it’s not unique. Normally, districts are able to cover 80 percent of absences with substitute teachers. During the pandemic, even prior to omicron, it was more like 60 percent. Now, many districts are so short of bodies that they’ve had to revert to online or hybrid learning.

“Typically, pre-pandemic, we would have between 250 and 280 substitutes come in for us,” says David Law, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota. “We’re lucky to get 100 substitutes right now.”

The sub shortage is just one aspect of current labor problems. Twelve million people were not working earlier this month due to coronavirus symptoms or caring for others who had them, according to the Census Bureau. Within schools alone, there are shortages of bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers.

But there are particular dynamics driving down the number of subs. Retired teachers, who make up a big share of substitutes, have often been reluctant to come back during outbreaks. “In a normal year, we have a sub pool of 570,” says Keith Marty, superintendent of Parkway Schools in suburban St. Louis. “This year, our pool is down to 343.”

In short, fewer subs are available to cover for more teachers who are out longer than usual. States and districts across the country are trying every short-term fix they can think of. Last week, the Kansas Board of Education voted to allow anyone with a high school diploma, rather than a college degree, to run classrooms on a substitute basis. Other states have tried similar approaches. Some are allowing parents or college students to sub. Many are drawing on non-certified staff or raising substitute pay.

On Tuesday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced he would sign an executive order allowing state employees to sub without losing pay or benefits. “I’ve said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay open,” Stitt said. “The state has a responsibility to do what we can to help make that happen.”

On Wednesday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham went a step further, not only calling on state workers to sub but announcing that she was sending in members of the National Guard.

It’s likely that for short-staffed districts, this moment represents the darkness that comes before a dawn. The omicron spike is already starting to subside in parts of the country. So many teachers have already been out sick that many have returned to classrooms post-infection.

But the sub shortage has been acute throughout the pandemic and will continue to be a problem regardless of the COVID-19 case count at any given moment. “The teacher shortages have been building for a long time,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, an education research organization. “They’re showing up in a big way now.”

Filling a Big Hole

Across the U.S., 600,000 people substitute in classrooms every year, according to Substantial Classrooms, a California-based nonprofit pushing for improvements to the substitute system.

The average student attending public schools from kindergarten through high school will end up receiving a full year of instruction from subs — 44 percent of whom receive zero training.

Districts that do offer training often provide perhaps half a day’s worth of instruction, much of it devoted to things like sexual harassment and how to log onto a district’s personnel system. “It’s not an insignificant part of education,” says Amanda von Moos, managing director of Substantial Classrooms. “It’s just a completely overlooked one.”

Being a sub set the prototype for gig economy work, von Moos says, offering greater flexibility and autonomy than full-time positions. But there are lots of other jobs now that offer such advantages — as well as the disadvantages of offering no clear path toward advancement.

Due to the Great Recession, 120,000 teaching positions were cut between 2008 and 2010, according to the Learning Policy Institute. By the time districts were ready to rehire around 2015, the economy had improved and many teachers and certainly a lot of subs had moved on to other jobs.

Districts have been able to use federal aid during the pandemic to do more hiring, but that’s shrunk the pool of available subs. Retirees may not only be skittish about COVID-19 but less inclined to work, given robust stock market returns.

There simply aren’t enough available bodies to replace all the teachers currently out for a week or more at a time.

“There’s no system that would fully alleviate the moment we’re in now,” von Moos says. “At the district leadership level, they are feverishly trying to solve a moving puzzle each day.”

Lowering Standards

Faced with a shortage earlier in the pandemic, Missouri changed the certification standards for substitute teachers. The state had previously required 60 college credit hours — the equivalent of an associate’s degree — but in 2020, the State Board of Education approved an emergency provision that required only 20 hours’ worth of online training. Last August, it made the new standard permanent.

More than 3,000 individuals have been certified through the new online system. The number of subs who were certified last year was nearly back up to pre-pandemic levels, following a major decline in 2020.

“What we don’t know is how many of these individuals go on to accept an assignment to substitute teach in their local schools,” says Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Based on the feedback we have received, this additional path to substitute certification has certainly helped, but school districts continue to experience a substitute teacher shortage.”

Marty, the Parkway superintendent, believes it has helped. Last year, the district added 119 new subs to its pool, after bringing in just 61 in 2020. Despite the improvement, however, it’s still a big drop from the 215 subs added back in 2019.

“In normal years, our (classroom) fill rate is between 95 and 98 percent every day,” Marty says. “Our fill rate in the 2021-2022 school year overall has been 78 percent. In the last week, it’s been down to 58 percent.”

Even states that have relaxed standards still require subs to undergo background checks. Fingerprinting requirements have led to backlogs, keeping prospective subs out of classrooms at the moment. “The backlog of the fingerprinting is holding us up,” says Kathi Weight, superintendent of the Steilacoom Historical School District, outside Tacoma, Wash. “Even classified staff that have been with us for 20 years.”

These days every available adult is helping to supervise classrooms. But often no more than that. Many districts have pulled their subs out of high schools entirely to free them up to work with younger kids elsewhere. In some high schools, a hundred kids or more at a time are shepherded into cafeterias and auditoriums for “asynchronous learning” overseen by one or two adults — meaning no lessons, just enough oversight to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

“We’re not talking about quality instruction,” says Law, the Anoka-Hennepin superintendent. “We’re talking about adults in front of kids.”

Grading for Improvement

About half the districts in metropolitan Minneapolis-St. Paul have shifted to online learning at some point this month. Superintendent Law is desperate to avoid having that happen in his schools.

“All the data shows that kids learn much better in person,” he said on Friday, while driving between elementary schools to help cover recess at one and lunch at another. “During distance learning and hybrid learning, our number of students who failed at least one course doubled.”

Schools all over are coping with dropouts, declining enrollment and learning loss. Law has devoted 30 percent of the federal aid his district has received to hire tutors. Those tutors are now spending a majority of their time subbing in classrooms.

Law’s district and countless others are having full-time teachers sub for absent colleagues during their prep hours and lunch breaks. “Just like we’re seeing in health care, this is burning people out in real time, no doubt,” von Moos says.

Going back to the “old normal” just won’t work, says Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute. The nation needs to invest more in teaching to make it more attractive, she argues, for example by allowing students to enter the profession without taking on debt. That may be a hard sell at a time when schools have become battlegrounds in the culture wars and teachers unions have become even more of a political target following widespread school closures.

But something needs to be done differently to keep substitutes in the system and full-time teachers in the classroom. A survey of 6,000 teachers in November found that half of them were thinking about quitting.

“The system we have now,” Darling-Hammond says, “is being abandoned by students and teachers.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners