EVERETT — Over the past few months, Nathan Roberts has witnessed dozens of substitute teachers stumble through their first days at Penny Creek Elementary School.
He’s watched them circle the parking lot outside, wondering whether to leave their car in a visitor or employee spot. He’s encountered subs in the hallway, looking for the library or a place to make copies of classwork. And he’s noticed when they struggle to remember a kid’s name while taking attendance or praising students for good work.
Roberts is a substitute, too, but by now he knows his way around campus. Unlike the other subs — many of them parent volunteers or people looking for a little extra work — he’s a full-time, salaried employee with health benefits and a long-term contract with Everett Public Schools. In January, the school district hired Roberts and about two dozen other “floaters” as part of a broader effort to improve the quality of substitute teaching and alleviate a staffing crunch that grew dire during this winter’s COVID-19 surge.
“Instead of trying to find a sub every single morning, or bringing in administration, I can step in for the entire week and give those kids some consistency,” Roberts said.
Roberts represents one example of how the recent coronavirus wave prompted school districts to reconsider their relationship with — and reliance on — substitute teachers. Much like bus drivers and custodians, substitutes have long been among the lowest-paid workers in education but remain critical to keeping schools open day to day. And they have a significant impact on student learning: Studies have linked teacher absences and uncertified, less trained subs to declines in student achievement.
Even before COVID, the U.S. faced a critical shortage of substitutes. Schools were unable to cover teacher absences some 20 percent of the time in 2018-19, according to the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, a research firm. Black and Hispanic students and students living in poverty were most likely to have to go without substitutes, according to a 2020 study from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.
COVID made a bad situation worse. Some 95 percent of district leaders reported in a recent survey that the pandemic caused a shortage of substitute teachers. And while the winter’s omicron wave has passed, the substitute staffing crunch isn’t going away.
“Teachers will continue to be absent, so we need to have a smarter way to cover those absences,” said Jessie Weiser, director of capacity building with Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit that works with school districts to improve the substitute experience. “Substitute teachers are an essential part of education. They’re not just a Plan B or an afterthought.”
The Everett district’s decision to hire floaters and offer them benefits was part of a strategy born out of crisis. Last fall, in the district, nearly half of teacher absences went unfilled, compared with 26 percent in fall 2019. Administrators, principals, librarians and other staff members regularly covered those classrooms. Teachers collected extra stipends to sacrifice their planning periods to cover for a missing colleague.
The district of 20,000 students — where 42 percent come from low-income households, 21 percent are Hispanic and 5 percent are Black — eventually had to resort to hiring substitutes who had only emergency certification. (In Washington, districts can apply to hire emergency substitutes who have a bachelor’s degree but no formal education training.)
In January, the district also upped its daily pay — from $200 to $250 — for all substitutes who worked on Mondays or Fridays, the most common days for teachers to call out. And it created an extra stipend for those who work at least 15 days every month until summer break. Still, that wasn’t enough once omicron started spreading.
In the fall the superintendent charged a task force with overhauling the district’s approach to recruiting, placing and training substitutes. Its recommendations included limiting training that would require subs to fill in and reaching out to retired teachers, as well as hiring the floaters. Chad Golden, executive director of human resources, also added a position in his office dedicated to recruiting substitutes.
Currently, the district is using federal COVID relief dollars to pay those substitute floaters, but Golden said the district’s general budget could cover the program in the future — if it helps improve coverage rates for absent teachers and school administrators report positive feedback.
As Everett waits to see if its efforts make a difference, the Central Falls School District in Rhode Island credits its survival during the omicron surge to changes it made to substitute teaching six years ago.
“The role of the substitute teacher was obsolete,” said Jay Midwood, chief of human capital for the district, recalling his thinking at the time. “The days of just getting a warm body or person in there just didn’t impact teaching or learning in the way we know our kids needed it to be.”
In 2016, the district launched a teaching fellowship program to provide yearlong contracts to about 30 aspiring teachers who are placed in its six schools. They can earn a higher daily rate than traditional substitutes, or put the extra amount toward health benefits. The district also provides individual coaching for the fellows and pays them a stipend to attend after-school training.
The fellowship is budget neutral: The district covers the extra pay for each fellow by diverting what it would have offered to teachers giving up their planning periods.
Midwood credited the fellows not only for helping the district through the omicron surge but also for creating a pipeline of potential educators who live in the same neighborhoods as Central Falls families. The district so far has hired 21 former fellows as full-time teachers, and another 20 have moved on to teach in neighboring districts.
Back in Washington, Seattle Public Schools has also tried to use substitute teaching as a way to both fill immediate needs and train future teachers. Through its Academy for Rising Educators, launched in 2019, teachers-in-training take night and weekend classes at local colleges or universities to study for their certification and a guaranteed teaching placement in the city’s schools. In the meantime, they serve as substitutes: About 60 substitutes hired in January come from the academy or similar programs.
Southeast of Seattle, the growing Tahoma School District, like Everett, hired full-time, roving substitutes to help with its immediate crisis. Administrators there also filled in for absent teachers — and returned to the central office with lessons about the reality of substitute teaching in Tahoma schools.
“What can we do to make this better?” Kimberly Allison, the district’s instructional technology coordinator, remembered asking herself after subbing for a week last winter. “When you really start looking at the substitute experience, it’s pretty abysmal.”
Recently, the district set a cap on how many teachers can be out at once for mandatory training. It also sent templates of lesson plans that teachers can leave for their temporary replacements. Allison hopes that next year, the district might offer stipends for substitutes to take additional training on classroom management and basic instructional skills.
By late March, the students and staff at Penny Creek had won Nathan Roberts over.
Roberts, 28, had started applying for full-time teaching jobs earlier that month after finishing a master’s degree in education at Western Governors University, an online college. He added Penny Creek to the top of his list.
“I would love to stay here if a position’s open,” he said. “Everyone’s really supportive and professional. I know the kids now. They’re easier to work with.”