As schools waffle on reopening, teachers ask: Where will the subs be?

Source: WikiMedia Commons user Mariquitas CK.

If you’re a teacher who calls in sick, Darlene Berlin is just the kind of substitute you’d want to take over your classroom for the day. 

A veteran educator who left the full-time workforce to raise her children, Berlin typically takes assignments in suburban Philadelphia elementary schools three days a week. She follows lesson plans and grades worksheets, doing “basically everything a classroom teacher does in a day,” Berlin told the Capital-Star last week.

For that work, Berlin earns a per diem rate of $120 and pays out of pocket for healthcare. She says she’s happy with the arrangement during a normal school year: she enjoys the flexibility of her job, and the fact that she doesn’t have to take work home with her when the day ends. 

But if you ask Berlin what it would take to get her back in the classroom this year, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb nationwide, she has a quick and candid answer: “A raise.” 

“On a normal day, I’m not complaining about my pay,” she said. “But in these specific times of uncertainty [when] we could contract a very serious virus that could risk our lives, I do feel that we need more incentive to go in.”

Berlin and other educators say that Pennsylvania schools may find themselves searching fruitlessly for substitute teachers this fall, when schools across the state are supposed to return to in-person instruction. 

How will Pennsylvania schools reopen this fall? Your questions, answered

Even before COVID-19 upended education, low pay and paltry benefits made it difficult for Pennsylvania schools to find enough subs to cover for absent teachers. 

Substitutes pay varies by district and starts at $60 per day, according to data compiled by the National Education Association. And while substitute teachers in Pennsylvania can cobble together full-time work schedules, they aren’t covered by collective bargaining agreements or entitled to healthcare benefits. 

But veteran educators say that substitutes will be all the more important in the upcoming school year, when schools stand to be the next battleground in an historic public health crisis. 

“I don’t think there is going to be enough incentive to get people to sub right now,” said Michele Coller, an elementary school teacher in the city of Lebanon. “We couldn’t get subs on a good day. Now, I can’t even imagine.”

Educators across the nation have expressed anxiety about returning to school buildings for the upcoming school year, even though many say they are eager to return to school to teach students in person. 

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Eric Levis said it’s too early to tell if Pennsylvania’s schools will be understaffed this fall. 

The state has faced a persistent teacher shortage over the last decade, as the number of students pursuing education degrees declines nationwide. 

While the state doesn’t keep data on teacher absences or substitute staffing, “most districts will tell you there’s a shortage” of subs as well, Levis said.

School leaders across the country predict those shortages will worsen this decade.

More than two-thirds of administrators and school board leaders anticipate higher demand for subs in the next five years, as millennial teachers start families and take more time off to care for children, according to a study from Kelly Education Services, a staffing agency that contracts with school districts nationwide to assign subs to classrooms.

COVID-19 is expected to usher in a new wave of teacher absenteeism.

“Schools recognize that at some point, there are going to be teachers who are sick,” Hannah Barrick, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers, said. “And that’s going to be a challenge.”

Bradley Beckner, a regional vice president for Kelly Education Services, said his agency is already seeing some heightened demand for substitute teachers. 

The number of long-term substitute teaching positions in Pennsylvania have increased this year, Beckner said, as full-time educators take early retirements or family leave. 

While some substitute teachers seem apprehensive about going back to work, Beckner said, his company hasn’t seen them flee the workforce en masse.

Kelly’s recruitment efforts this summer have more or less kept pace with recent years, as the agency fields applications from hopeful subs and helps them get the credentials they need to teach.

“The number of people in the pipeline [hasn’t changed],” Beckner said. “But are they going to pick up assignments when the time comes? It’s too early to tell.”

Beckner said that COVID-19 related job losses could actually bolster interest in substitute teaching. But those gains could be short-lived, Beckner said, as the economy recovers and people seek out full-time, stable jobs. 

It could also be hard for Pennsylvania to capitalize on the new interest, since the state has some of the most stringent certification requirements in the nation. 

While it’s up to school districts to hire subs, determine their pay, and offer them benefits, state law limits employment opportunities for substitutes that don’t have bachelor’s degrees or education certifications. 

Beckner said school districts should consider increasing pay rates for substitute teachers going into the new school year. They should also offer them opportunities for professional development, especially as more schools resort to online instruction. 

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing more than 180,000 educators statewide, agrees that substitute teachers need fair pay. That’s just another reason, they say, that federal lawmakers need to pass another relief package to help school leaders pay for a historically expensive year. 

“We need Congress to approve emergency funding for schools so that districts have the resources to keep staff on the job and to pay substitutes fairly when we need them,” PSEA spokesman Chris Lillienthal said. “This is going to be critically important for the safe reopening of our schools.”