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With Pandemic And Sub Shortage, Metro East Schools Struggle To Staff Classrooms

Collinsville School District 10 music teacher, Jennifer Bhooshan, teaches students at Webster Elementary school on Oct. 1. COVID-19 restrictions has forced Bhooshan to become creative in the way she teaches music, since students are not allowed to share instruments.
Derik Holtmann
Bellville News-Democrat
Collinsville School District 10 music teacher, Jennifer Bhooshan, teaches students at Webster Elementary school on Oct. 1. COVID-19 restrictions has forced Bhooshan to become creative in the way she teaches music, since students are not allowed to share instruments.

In a normal year, Collinsville School District 10 has a roster of about 120 substitute teachers it can depend on to pick up days. In a strikingly un-normal school year like this one, fewer subs are willing to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The district’s roster of subs has fallen to about 75.

“To walk into the year down was challenging,” Superintendent Brad Skertich said, noting that the district has managed to add a few substitutes along the way.

If there’s not a sub available, Skertich said teachers might sub on their prep period, or principals might be pulled to cover vital class periods..

Collinsville is hardly the only school district with its staff stretched thin. The Madison County Regional Office of Education has less than half the number of registered subs this year than the last two, and districts all over the country are feeling the strain.

Alongside obvious challenges from coordinating hybrid learning plans or doling out technology for remote learners, school districts in Illinois are facing a manpower problem.

Historical trends for the workforce are compounding: More teachers are retiring, more positions are remaining unfilled and there haven’t been enough substitute teachers for years. Those teachers that remain are reporting severe burnout from working through a pandemic.

And when staff have to quarantine — whether because they test positive or they were in close contact with someone who did — it falls back on those still in the building to make up for it.

‘The staffing issue is really becoming bad’

In previous years, if a district needed 15 subs in one day, it would usually be because of a severe outbreak of the flu, said Robert Werden, Madison County regional superintendent. Just recently, one Madison County district called in a need for 48 subs, he said.

“The staffing issue is really becoming bad,” he said. “ ... That puts into perspective the demand we’re having.”

This school year, there are 159 registered subs with the Madison County Regional Office of Education. Last year, there were 326. The year before, there were 364. On an average day, the office estimates between 150 and 200 subs are requested throughout the county.

A registered sub isn’t necessarily an active one. Werden said that some people register, go to a classroom once, and then never sub again. Active substitutes can always turn down a day or a class.

COVID-19 outbreaks in schools are uncommon, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. IDPH reported Friday that 16 of the state’s nearly 4,000 schools had active outbreaks. New studies suggest that schools are not a common transmission site for coronavirus, at least not with hybrid learning plans where in-person classroom days are staggered and some lessons are done remotely.

The more immediate problem is staff members being exposed outside of the school. Even schools with a relatively small number of confirmed cases are faced with high numbers of quarantines.

More than 17% of Triad School District 2 staff members — all staff, not just teachers — had to quarantine between Nov. 6 and Nov. 20, according to the district’s online coronavirus case tracker.

Before Waterloo Community School District 5 announced the week before Thanksgiving that, in the wake of mounting cases in the region, all students would revert to remote learning, Superintendent Brian Charron said he warned parents that staff quarantines might force some schools to switch to remote learning.

Substitute teacher shortages are nothing new— the Illinois State Board of Education has been reimbursing application and registration fees for qualifying applicants since 2017, in a bid to encourage more people to join the pool.

COVID-19 concerns create unique problems

But the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

Belleville 118 Superintendent Ryan Boike said the district hired permanent substitutes for the first time this school year. Rather than be on the roster for multiple districts, a permanent substitute works five days a week, wherever they’re needed.

Timing is also an issue. Werden said some districts start calling subs as early as 4 a.m. in an effort to make arrangements in time.

COVID-19 test results can come in at odd hours, and symptoms can start at any time of day. Before the coronavirus, a teacher who developed a mild sore throat or a sniffle in the middle of the day could likely push through the rest of work day.

“This year, you can’t do that,” Triad 2 Superintendent Leigh Lewis said.

Now, staff are required to begin a quarantine at the onset of symptoms, which doesn’t always give much notice to find a sub. And that sub may be needed for 10 or 14 days, depending on whether the absent teacher tested positive or were in close contact with someone who did.

Substitute teachers also have to take their own safety into account, Lewis said. Some might limit their work to one building or one classroom to limit their potential exposure.

While Werden said schools were following protocols to keep staff and students safe, he understands why potential substitutes might be uneasy.

“The environment that we’re in right now — I understand (the concern),” he said. “Our schools have done a good job of providing a safe environment to the students, but I can understand someone’s concern if they were looking to become a sub.”

Megan Valley is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a reporting partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Megan Valley covers education at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio. She is also a Report for America corps member.