Substitute teachers in short supply

Administration faces challenges in covering staff absences

Guest+teacher+Ruty+Levy+prepares+ahead+of+a+class.

Guest teacher Ruty Levy prepares ahead of a class.

Distance learning meant fewer staff absences as all teaching took place at home. Now, with the return to in-person school, guest teachers are in high demand. This poses a problem for teachers who want or need to take time off, as well as the administrators tasked with filling their spots.

Despite safety precautions, there is still hesitancy surrounding classrooms at full capacity. According to the CDC, “the risk [of severe illness from COVID-19] increases for people in their 50s and increases in 60s, 70s, and 80s.” This is concerning because many of the guest teachers in the district fall within that age range.

“While we take every safety precaution possible you do kind of put yourself at risk if you come to school. Not all but a good chunk of our guest teachers are retired teachers or retired community members who don’t want to put themselves at risk,” Assistant Principal Natalie Smith said.

That and the appeal of full-time work following a year of economic difficulty has limited the number of active substitute teachers.

“There have been multiple mornings that we’ll come in and [Principal Mat] McClenahan, [Assistant Principal Jason] Meskis or myself have to cover a class until a guest teacher can arrive,” Smith said. “Many times we ask other teachers in their off or conference periods to cover classes to puzzle piece it together, if you will, when there aren’t enough guest teachers available.”

English teacher Jan Willis also covered classes when she was not teaching one of her own. As the office was scrambling to find teacher replacements, Willis was scrambling to take care of things she had planned to do prior to being called in as a substitute.

“I really don’t blame the office staff because they were desperate so at least I could step in,” Willis said. “It was a little bit disconcerting that they were scrambling so much to get slots filled and I wondered if this was going to continue for the rest of the year. I think it’s better now but it was kind of a shock to the system.”

Oak Park is not alone in school districts facing this issue. According to Linda Gam, the Guest Teacher Coordinator, the guest teachers the district hires also work in neighboring districts. Gam, who is responsible for filling the absences, said covering classrooms has been challenging.

“My understanding is that there is a guest teacher shortage nationwide,” Gam said. “Pre-COVID, we always had many guest teacher applicants and would have a total of 60 active guest teachers at any one time. We currently have 25-30.” 

Other school districts across the country have been experiencing similar issues but have had to take more drastic measures. In Ashburn, Virginia struggles with filling absences prompted a school board member to volunteer as a substitute teacher. A rural school district in Evanston, Illinois was forced to cancel classes because the school could no longer operate. 

“Governor Newsom stepped in and extended the 30-day credential to 60 days, which helps in covering any of our long-term assignments,” Gam said. “If a guest teacher has a 30-Day credential, it means that they can only cover up to 30 days for the same teacher in a given school year. The extension has been very helpful.”

In addition, the district has taken its own steps to ensure all absences are filled. 

“In order to be proactive, we temporarily raised the daily guest teacher rate to be competitive with the surrounding districts,” Gam said. “We also raised the daily rate for the teachers that have a prep period who cover an open period for another teacher at [Medea Creek Middle School] and [Oak Park High School]. We all work together to make it happen.”

When asked what OPHS teachers need to know about the situation, Gam said all planned personal time must be approved by a school administrator, and the sooner they are notified the better.

“A lot of planning and preparation needs to happen to make it work,” Gam said. “In the end, all classrooms get the coverage they need.”-If you or anyone you know is interested in applying to become a guest teacher in OPUSD, please visit our website at opusd.org for more information or email Linda Gam at [email protected]