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Substitute teachers are in short supply. Missouri hopes it's found a solution

Students raise their hands during a summer school program in the Jennings School District. The north St. Louis County district was one of the first public schools in the St. Louis area to reopen to students.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Schools across Missouri are dealing with a substitute teacher shortage.

Missouri is once again making it easier for substitute teachers to become certified to work in schools. It’s part of an effort to address a widespread shortage.

Last fall, Missouri gave substitute teachers the option to take a 20-hour online certification course, rather than only certifying substitute teachers who had completed 60 college-level credit hours from a recognized institution. The state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education studied the online certification program and found school administrators were happy with the substitute teachers the program produced.

“You know, they said: ‘We've hired these folks. We would hire them again. They've come in and done a really good job for us. In some instances, they're even better prepared than folks we were getting with 60 semester hours,’” said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner in DESE’s Office of Educator Quality.

In August, the Missouri Board of Education voted to make the new certification process permanent, starting at the end of this year, but Katnik said that wasn’t soon enough. The state Board of Education approved a new emergency amendment to make it possible for substitute teachers to go through the online certification even earlier.

“This speeds it up so we could start issuing certificates now, because our districts are struggling right now,” Katnik said.

Since the online training option opened last week, 200 people have started the course, which covers topics like lesson design, classroom management and working with at-risk youth, Katnik said.

Widespread problem

Many districts across the state facing a substitute staffing shortage hope this new certification option will bring them more candidates.

Individual districts are also finding ways to address the problem. St. Louis Public Schools recently raised its substitute teacher pay from $145 a day to $200 and started offering professional development training to substitutes.

“Basically, if you're a substitute teacher and you want a job, you can find one here,” said George Sells, director of communications and marketing at St. Louis Public Schools.

Schools use what’s called a “fill rate” to measure substitute teacher shortages. The term refers to the percentage of teacher absences where the absence was successfully filled by a substitute teacher. Katnik said in some Missouri school districts, the fill rate is as low as 50%.

STLPR education reporter Kate Grumke joins 'St. Louis on the Air'

“What's really problematic about that is when you need to fill 10 classrooms with the sub and you can only get five, then you're making a whole lot of adjustments to cover the other five classrooms, right?” Katnik said.

In Parkway Schools, the fill rate has fallen to about 80% from a pre-COVID rate of about 97%. Michael Baugus, Parkway’s chief human resources officer, said that’s due to both a decrease in available substitute teachers and an increase in time off requests from teachers who are being asked to stay home if they have any possible COVID-19 symptoms. Baugus said the district has had to get creative to cover its classes.

“Sometimes our full-time classroom teachers fill in for those absences and cover those classes during their planning time,” Baugus said. “Our librarians, our counselors, instructional coaches, assistant principals, principals are all filling in as well to cover those classes that are unfilled. And so it just really puts a stress on the entire system.”

This is all part of a nationwide shortage in school staff. It’s not a new problem. Emma García of the Learning Policy Institute said there has been a substitute teacher shortage for more than a decade. One factor is wages; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for short-term substitute teachers is a little more than $14 an hour.

“That's not a very attractive salary for somebody who is just going to have a temporary appointment, so there is a lot of uncertainty about the stability of that job that maybe [doesn’t offer] full benefits,” García said. “And sometimes also they are asked to join a school on a very short notice.”

Underprepared teachers are two to three times as likely to leave the profession, García said. Reducing qualifications for substitute teachers could have negative consequences for staffing issues, she said.

“You are just perpetuating the problem by reducing the standards and credentials that are necessary for being in front of a classroom,” García said.

To reduce turnover, García said policymakers should focus on teacher compensation, working conditions and teacher preparation and support.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.