Substitute teachers are in high demand as teacher absences rise
By Shana Carey
Opinions Editor and Marketing Editor
The bell rings causing you to rush to your first period class. A closed door and white sheet of paper greet you with a message to check Google Classroom and head to the Commons for a study hall period.
This is not an uncommon occurrence for students across the Red Lion Area Senior High School. Teacher absences have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a limited amount of substitute teachers are available to cover classes.
“We do a good job of controlling the exposure in the building,” Chief Legal and Operations Officer Mr. Gregory Monskie said in reference to the high number of teacher absences. “Part of the byproduct of us doing a good job is we have a lot of teacher absences.”
Many students find themselves having study halls or work periods instead of having a substitute teacher. “The main issue that goes back a number of years is a problem in the supply of substitute teachers,” Mr. Monskie said.
According to substitute teacher, Mr. Michael Scott Shelton, there are about three to four substitute teachers in the building every day. Last year there were enough substitute teachers to cover nearly every class. “As far as the teachers being out, it really provides us the opportunity to be here on a daily basis,” Mr. Shelton said.
“I don’t think there’s much the school district can do at this time, because the substitutes come from a third party called Substitute Teacher Services (STS),” Mr. Shelton said. “Their hands are kind of tied.”
STS provides substitute teachers for schools across Pennsylvania. Mr. Monskie says that nearly every school district in the county uses STS, and they are all experiencing a reduced supply of substitute teachers.
Substitute shortages are not a new problem. Schools across the country struggle with filling substitutes into absent teachers’ positions.
Mr. Shelton says the lack of substitutes is simply because of the pandemic.“It is actually due to COVID-19. There are some older subs that don’t feel comfortable stepping into full or half full school buildings.”
The supply of substitute teachers is decreasing according to Mr. Monskie. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, substitutes are more hesitant to come into school. “I think this is a systemic problem that has been going on for a long time that I think is being put under additional stress by what our obligations are in the current environment,” Mr. Monskie said.
“A lot of people don’t want to be substitute teachers right now and under these circumstances,” Mr. Monskie said. “On the demand side, we need to be more careful with our staff when they’re coming to work if they’re showing any signs of illness.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages employees to self-isolate any time they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. This includes when workers have a fever, cough, or head cold.
People are supposed to quarantine when they are within six feet of someone who had COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes. While in quarantine, some teachers found their classes fell behind due to an inadequate supply of substitute teachers. Still, other teachers kept their classes on track.
Mr. Thomas Wise, school choral instructor, quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19 last month. “I would lie if I didn’t say more teachers are out now than they were last year, but it’s not a ton different. It’s really not. We’re lacking subs, period.”
Mr. Wise said his choir class did well while he was absent because the students stepped up and moved at a normal pace.
According to Mr. Wise, his music appreciation class needed more one-on-one attention. “They were actually reading stuff and doing work,” Mr. Wise said, “I would have to make sure that they were doing it, and it was not the same as lecturing.”
Technology provides opportunities for instruction that may not have existed in the past. Many teachers choose to use Google Meet with their students in order to give their students instruction time. Teachers “are able to teach synchronously with their students,” Mr. Monskie said, “and we are able to provide some in class supervision of the students so that that can continue.”
Both Monskie and Shelton agree the best thing for students is for a teacher or substitute to be present in the classroom.
“I think anytime the full time teacher is out,” Mr. Shelton said, “students aren’t quite going to get what they would if they were there.”
Many classes go to study halls and complete worksheets while their teachers are absent. Mr. Shelton feels teachers leave adequate lesson plans that keep their students on track. “I think a substitute in the room is much better than having kids just going into a study hall,” Mr. Shelton said. “I think they get a lot more accomplished if they’re in their classrooms.”
With a depleted supply of substitute teachers, the district struggles to fill absent teachers’ positions.
Since many classes cannot have a substitute in the room, many teachers are sent to oversee classes with absent teachers. Mr. Wise has had to provide coverage. “It’s not a whole lot different than last year because I’m covering study halls,” Mr. Wise said. “So it’s not a huge change.”
“I think they (the school district) are doing as best they can. And I’m glad we’re having school, so I’m not gonna complain,” Mr. Wise said.
Mr. Monskie said that the teacher absences are indicative of the district doing a good job with exposure to the virus. “I would caution you not to only see this problem as a symptom of people getting sick,” Mr. Monskie said. “It’s a symptom of us preventing people from getting sick.”
Grace Frain and Elizabeth Rogers work outside the LGI because of absent teachers and few substitutes. They find the work from their classes is sufficient and keeps them busy. Taken by Shana Carey