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Substitute Teacher Availability Better, But Still Tenuous As More Schools Reopen

Leslie Forsythe, a substitute teacher at the Affton Early Childhood Center, coaxes a student into a classroom on the first day of school Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Leslie Forsythe, a substitute teacher in Affton, coaxes a student into a classroom in August 2019. Districts are having a harder time finding eager subs during the pandemic.

The substitute teacher pool in Missouri is not bone dry, but it is still in drought conditions as more classrooms welcome back students in the second semester.

Staffing shortages in the fall hindered efforts to get more students physically back into school. Some districts closed high schools again or delayed reopenings to concentrate staff on elementary schools. But several St. Louis area districts are opening middle and high schools for the second semester, which could again strain staffing.

“It’s an ongoing concern,” said Paul Ziegler, the chief executive of EdPlus, a regional school district organization. “I don't know that the shortage has been alleviated. But I think we're better off.”

Increased recruitment, pay incentives and easing of certification requirements have helped to shore up reserves, but there remains a shortage of substitute teachers willing and ready to go into classrooms, especially during a pandemic.

Missouri’s education department changed the standards for becoming a substitute teacher in September, getting rid of the requirement for 60 hours of college credits and putting in its place a 20-hour online training. The department has also made it free to become a sub, using federal coronavirus relief money to reimburse newly minted subs the roughly $270 in fees for the training, certification and background check.

From when the change was implemented in September through the end of December, the state certified 11,654 new subs, and 3,860 more are registered or going through the training. That’s well over double the 6,212 new subs certified from January to August of last year. The reduced certification requirement is scheduled to expire in February.

The change “allowed us to expand that pool by offering other ways for subs to be certified, but the net gain was probably zero, because it was probably just backfilling for some of those spots that were no longer being filled by people that made the decision not to sub at this point,” Ziegler said.

Kelly Services, a company that provides substitute teachers to districts nationwide, has about 600 fewer employees on its roster in Missouri than it did a year ago. Keith Elliott, the regional coordinator for Kelly in Missouri, said he’s confident the company will still be able to meet the needs of districts.

Kelly has been able to recruit in parts of the state where fewer people have college degrees because of the certification change, and some districts have increased pay.

“As we start to see recruiting numbers rebound, we start to see that confidence go back up, we do expect that we'll be able to keep up,” he said.

There was already a shortage of substitute teachers in Missouri, and around the country, prior to the pandemic. Some districts were at times able to fill less than half their teacher absences on some days last fall. Other districts say their so-called “fill rate” is down 10-15% this school year from usual averages of around 90%.

“It has been challenging,” said Laura Warren, a recruiter in the Parkway School District. “The fill rates since we've been back, and we've only got a small sample size, because that's really just been for a couple of weeks, the fill rates have been OK, not as good as last year.”

Districts have changed tactics to try to keep up with increased teacher absences, including staff taking on extra duties. Parkway is deploying one or two full-time substitutes to each of its schools to fill last-minute vacancies more easily.

Hancock Place School District is experimenting with teleworking for instructional staff. Full-time teachers who, for example, are on home quarantine are now video-calling into their classrooms to give instructions while a substitute teacher acts as more of a chaperone.

“Prior to COVID-19, there was really no availability for a teacher to be at home and still engage kids,” said Hancock Place Superintendent Kevin Carl.

The quality of substitute teachers has not dropped without the college credit requirement, Carl and other education administrators said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.