Seeking solutions to sub shortage

Photo by Alexandra Retter

 

Substitute teacher Michael Meurer helps a student with an assignment at Winona Middle School. Like districts throughout the state, Winona Area Public Schools is facing a substitute teacher shortage. 

by ALEXANDRA RETTER 

 

For a few of Ella Skranka’s classes, there was no teacher or substitute teacher. “I think that harms students, because that takes away from learning time we already lost from COVID,” the senior at Winona Senior High School (WSHS) and Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board Student Representative said at the board’s October 19 meeting. 

Goodview Elementary School Principal Emily Cassellius witnessed the district’s substitute shortage firsthand, as well. She has stepped in as a substitute teacher for some classes at Goodview. “When we have those unfilled jobs, I’m always willing to sub … I like getting in the classroom and being with students,” she said. Other staff members at the school, such as a counselor and social worker, have also substitute taught. It is not an ideal situation, however, she said. “If we were able to fill all our sub jobs, we’d be able to avoid pulling other people from the important jobs they have,” she said. “There is a domino effect when we start pulling other staff to fill sub jobs.” 

WAPS is not alone in facing a substitute shortage. Districts across Minnesota are struggling with the problem, which the pandemic exacerbated. School Board member Michael Hanratty broached the topic at the School Board’s October 19 meeting after reading articles about the issue.  

At WAPS, the number of available substitutes has decreased over the past several years, with a particularly significant dip because of the pandemic. Since the 2016-2017 school year, WAPS has gone from 141 to 78 substitutes, according to information that Human Resources Director Emily Solheid presented at the School Board’s November 4 meeting. Between the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, the district lost 34 substitute teachers, the largest decrease of the past six school years. 

Like other employers, the district is facing problems with filling positions in general, Solheid said at the School Board’s October 19 meeting.

In addition to having fewer substitute teachers, the percentage of substitute openings that are filled has decreased. The percentage of filled openings ranged from 74 percent to 82 percent this school year, compared to a range of 90 percent to 94 percent in 2018-2019. Moreover, of 232 absences of education assistants in the first 34 days of school this year, 106 were not filled, or 46 percent. Among teachers, of 417 absences, 45 were not filled, or 11 percent. 

School Board member Karl Sonneman asked at the board’s November 4 meeting what percentage Solheid would like to see. She said the 85 to 90 percent range is comfortable and the range in which staff do not feel they need to come in when they are sick. 

Substitute teachers are needed slightly more on Fridays than other weekdays, according to Solheid. Fridays are the day on which 21 percent of absences fall this school year, compared with 20 percent on Mondays, 19 percent on Tuesdays, 17 percent on Wednesdays and 19 percent on Thursdays.

One factor that potentially affects this field is substitute teachers being able to work in more than one district.  

WAPS also considered wages. The district increased the rate of pay to $20 an hour or $130 a day this school year, Solheid said. In contrast, Alberta Lea pays $110 to $130 a day, Faribault pays $145 a day, Lewiston-Altura pays $120 a day and Cotter pays $100 a day, she said. The highest rate in the region is $170 to $215 a day at Red Wing. 

Solheid said she would want to be cautious about further increases, as she does not want to devalue the pay for a beginning teacher, about $229 a day.  

Hanratty said he felt it would be worth exploring an additional raise. 

Unfilled substituting openings impact students and staff. School Board Chair Nancy Denzer asked whether the district could not allow a teacher who scheduled an absence for professional development, for example, to be out if there was a high need for substitute teachers that day. Solheid said yes; WAPS sometimes asks teachers to work anyway. 

When the district cannot find an available substitute teacher, other staff often fill the need. Solheid said some educational assistants at the middle or high school level have a teaching or short-call substitute certification, and the district has asked them to substitute teach.  

Combining classes is an option at some schools, depending on class sizes, Solheid said. The school could offer supervised study halls for combined classes, she said. 

If an art, PE or music teacher is absent at the elementary level, WAPS would ask a classroom teacher to keep their students during what would have been their time to prepare lessons, Solheid said. 

Hanratty expressed his concerns about counselors and social workers filling substituting needs, as he does not want their time being taken away from helping students, in light of social and emotional needs arising from the pandemic. Hanratty also said at the October 19 meeting that he was concerned about principals or other staff substituting, as it could impact their ability to complete their work and, therefore, impact students. 

To substitute teach on a day to day basis, those with a four-year degree can apply to the state for a certification. Those substituting in a class for an extended period of time must be certified in the area they are teaching in. Those without a bachelor’s degree can substitute as an educational assistant, for example, but not as a classroom teacher, Solheid said in an interview.

The district also is working to recruit substitute teachers and find new ways to do so. The district works to engage with substitute teachers and have them feel part of the WAPS community, Solheid said. WAPS also collaborates with local universities. School Board member Jim Schul said at the board’s November 4 meeting that he is recruiting some of the students he has taught as an education professor. WAPS asks those who retire from the district if they would like to substitute teach, as well, Solheid said. 

Ideas other districts have implemented include giving a bonus to employees who refer a substitute teacher to the district and reimbursing subs for certifications. 

At WAPS, Solheid said in an interview, she would like to work on a program to provide substitute teachers training on earning certification and skills such as classroom management.  She would also be interested in reimbursing some certification costs, she said. 

Skranka said at the October 19 School Board meeting that it is important to consider teachers’ mental health, as well. School Board member Stephanie Smith agreed on November 4, stating teachers perhaps need time off for their mental health and the district could support that. 

For one of the district’s substitute teachers, the position brings him full circle to the start of his career. Michael Meurer substitute taught for several years before teaching for a few decades. Now, he is thrilled to be back in the classroom. At the middle school, where students have “so much hope and promise,” he said, he loves watching students grow from fifth to eighth graders. Also, some of the teachers there are his own former students, and he appreciates collaborating with them. He said he wants prospective substitute teachers to know the students are wonderful and joyful, and the adults in the building are supportive. 

Education@winonapost.com