Substitute teachers are in high demand for school districts trying to fill vacancies in a pandemic

©The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — Dawn Pittman retired from teaching in 2013 after more than three decades. But Pittman has no plans to give up her passion — even in a pandemic. When Camden resumes in-person learning, possibly in January, she hopes to answer the call as a substitute.

“I absolutely love teaching,” said Pittman, 58, of Merchantville, New Jersey.

Retired Philadelphia teacher Janice Richardson has already been getting those calls. She says she has turned down lucrative offers from parents and districts — as much as $2,000 a week to substitute-teach, something she hasn’t done since 2016.

“I get calls every day to come back,” said Richardson, 65, of North Wales, Pennsylvania, who spends her days caring for her grandson, Amari, 3. “It’s not always about money.”

Across the region, substitute teachers are in high demand that could increase as school districts scramble to find replacements to fill in for regular teachers who are reluctant to return to the classroom because of COVID-19 health concerns.

Some districts, including Camden and Cherry Hill, cited a substitute-teacher shortage in their decision to reopen schools this year with virtual learning only. There were fears districts wouldn’t have enough teachers to staff classrooms.

The shortage concerns are national and worsening. Before the pandemic, schools across the country were able to fill just 54% of the 250,000 substitute jobs open daily during the school year, according to a survey commissioned by Kelly Education, a nationwide staffing agency.

More substitutes will be needed to fill in for teachers who become ill, need to quarantine, take leaves of absence, or choose to work remotely because of the coronavirus.

“There is much uncertainty around the future education landscape but what is certain is the fact that substitute educators, either in-person or remote-base, will be in demand,” the Kelly report stated.

But not all substitute teachers are committed to returning.

Glynnis Gradwell, who became a substitute after retiring from the Philadelphia School District several years ago, said she can’t see herself returning when students go back to school in November.

“I’m leery, to be honest,” Gradwell said. “I probably will go back and do online teaching, but me and everyone else — when we see a vacancy, we will wonder, why is that teacher out? Do they have COVID symptoms? I can’t imagine how they’re going to get subs.”

Districts typically hire their own substitutes or use an agency such as Kelly and ESS — which has a pool of 60,000 substitutes in 28 states — to fill daily and long-term vacancies for substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff.

The Lower Merion School District, which began with virtual learning and plans to start bringing some of its 8,700 students back to classrooms Sept. 29, has two substitutes assigned full time to each of its 10 schools.

“These ‘building subs’ are our first people we go to when teachers call out,” spokesperson Amy Buckman said. “Naturally, we think there is going to be an increased need.”

In anticipation of a shortage, the Washington Township school system, in Gloucester County, has hired 19 permanent substitutes, spokesperson Jan Giel said. They will report to an assigned school every day and provide class coverage or other services as needed, she said.

“The pandemic is just making it worse,” said Laurie Haines, assistant director of the office of clinical experiences in the College of Education at Rowan University.

Substitutes’ pay can vary, depending on the need and the teacher’s qualifications and certifications, from about $65 a day to about $150 a day. In South Jersey, Hammonton Schools this year upped its pay to $225 a day for substitutes. A Morris County district has offered $195 a day.

Retired math teacher Geri Andrews-Savage, of Berlin Township, has no plans to enter the substitute pool. She retired from Overbrook High School in Winslow Township after nearly 40 years.

“I don’t care how much they offer. I’m not risking my life,” said Andrews-Savage, 68. “My life is more important than money.”

Substitutes must have at least 60 college credits and some form of certification. Most are usually retired teachers or recent graduates looking for their first jobs.

“The solution isn’t we need more substitutes,” said Steve Baker, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Education Association, which represents the state’s roughly 120,000 teachers. “Substitutes were never intended as full-time replacements for teachers. We have to make sure all schools are safe enough.”

Some districts like West Deptford, which plans to transition from remote learning to in-person in November, are seeking substitutes now, said Superintendent Gregory Cappello. The district cannot compete with higher-paying districts to recruit substitutes, he said.

“We are concerned, but we are closely guarding our budget right now, so we are in a wait-and-see pattern,” Cappello said.

State regulations limit the number of days a substitute can serve without certain subject certifications before a district must fill the vacancy with a teacher who has the required certification. Retirees must also follow guidelines to avoid affecting their pension.

“Of all the challenges that school districts are facing this year, one of them has been trying to keep an adequate supply of substitute teachers,” said Michael Yaple, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Education.

Once he works out some technical issues, Stuart London hopes to jump into substituting virtually again in Philadelphia schools. He completed the district’s training for new teachers and feels ready to handle online learning platforms.

And when students return to buildings, London will be going back, too. A spokesperson said the district is nearly 97% staffed and had record-low teacher absences the first seven days of the school year, averaging about 100 daily. During this same time last year, the number was three times that amount.

“I feel that the school districts are going to make things as safe as possible,” said London, who’s been substituting in district schools for four years. “If you can go to the local department store and sit at the local restaurant (and) if you can go to the beach and walk on the boardwalk, you can go to school,” said London.

Pittman, too, is looking forward to getting back into the classroom in Camden. She worries that the city’s mostly minority children will fall further behind their counterparts in other districts that have in-person learning. Besides, she said, it doesn’t seem like work to her.

“I love those kids,” she said.

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer