How suburban school districts are scrambling after pandemic exacerbated teacher shortage
School districts struggling with the long-term effects of COVID-19 have an urgent problem to tackle: a shortage of teachers and substitute teachers exacerbated by the pandemic.
Suburban districts are trying to address the problem by asking retirees to step in where there are critical shortages, increasing compensation, deploying administrators to classrooms and sharing services with neighboring districts.
Statewide, more than 3,600 education jobs are unfilled, with a particular dearth of candidates in special education. As of October 2020, 42% of vacancies were in special education, 9% in elementary education, 6% for bilingual teachers, and the rest spread across other content areas. Districts also are reporting more than 1,200 paraprofessional vacancies, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
The state board doesn't track substitute positions, but "we are hearing that districts are having difficulty finding substitute teachers," spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said.
Where substitutes went
School districts say the pool of potential substitute teachers is dwindling, partly stemming from COVID-19 concerns and from competition with other jobs. Substitute teachers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, which might deter some candidates.
"It's already a tight labor market," said Ann Chan, assistant superintendent of human resources for Elgin Area School District U-46. "The need was not great for substitutes during the pandemic. People were forced to find other work for a whole year and a half. It created a situation where our traditional pipeline had to stop and readjust. "
The state's second-largest school district has about 60 vacancies, mostly for special education and dual language teachers. Skilled paraprofessionals who support classroom teachers also are scarce in U-46.
Retirees make up a third of U-46's pool of 400 active substitute teachers. Some are uncomfortable returning in person with students 11 and under still not eligible for vaccination.
For others, there might be more steady work available outside of schools that offers benefits and is more predictable, Chan said.
To attract new substitutes, U-46 raised its pay rate by $20 per day starting this month. The district now pays substitutes $130 per day for general education classes and $140 per day for dual language and special education classes.
"In addition, there are about a dozen days during the school year when we will pay subs an additional $20 a day ... when we're offering professional development to our full-time educators," Chan said. "What is challenging for this year is that we consciously created additional (teaching) positions to maintain social distancing to ensure safety of students and staff. When needed, administrators from the district offices fill in as substitute teachers as well."
Finding substitutes for short-term and longer-term assignments has been difficult, said Erin Holmes, spokeswoman for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211.
"We recently surveyed substitutes who previously had worked for us, and fewer than half indicated they wanted to continue," she said. "The pandemic was largely cited as the reason to not return, with concerns about their health and their family's health being key factors in the decision."
The hard-to-fill roles
District 211 is struggling to find teachers for specialized positions, including English as a Second Language, special education, applied technology and family and consumer sciences. It also is seeing a drop in applicants for roles such as social workers and school psychologists, who are critical for addressing students' social and emotional health needs after months of pandemic isolation from peers.
In Huntley Community School District 158, the pool of applicants for certain teaching positions has been decreasing over the last five years.
"We are experiencing a need for bilingual teachers, school psychologists, special education teachers across all grade levels, career and technical education teachers as well as math and science positions at the secondary level," district spokesman Alex LeMoine said. "We have also not been immune to the shortage of substitute teachers."
In response, District 158 increased pay for substitute teachers this school year and held its first virtual job fair this fall to recruit candidates.
"Several retired teachers are in substitute positions," LeMoine said. "Our team of administrators and staff have also been invaluable in providing necessary coverage to ensure we are able to serve our students in all the necessary ways. We are continuing to explore new ways to recruit and retain quality candidates."
The problem is most suburban districts are in the same boat.
"It has been extremely difficult to find substitute teachers this year," said Carol Smith, spokeswoman for St. Charles Unit District 303 which is facing teacher shortages at all grade levels. "Districts around the area are drawing from the same pool of substitutes. If there are no substitutes available, teachers often fill in during their planning periods, which is not optimal."
Paying a teacher to substitute teach during a planning period costs more than hiring an outside person to stand in for that classroom. Teachers also lose the time they are allotted to plan for their own classes.
The financial impact of the teacher/substitute shortage has been difficult to quantify, said Ross Vittore, assistant superintendent of human resources for Elk Grove Elementary District 59.
"There is a great deal of time and resources needed to support keeping school safely functioning during a pandemic," Vittore said. "This can delay other planned objectives," such as professional development.
State Superintendent of Education Carmel Ayala offered districts experiencing staffing challenges some ways to sustain in-person instruction.
"School districts may use technology to broadcast the instruction of one in-person teacher to other classrooms in the school that are supervised by parents, volunteers, or paraprofessionals," Ayala wrote in a message to school leaders.
Unlicensed employees or volunteers must be supervised by licensed personnel physically present in the building. Districts can use federal pandemic relief funding to pay for parent mentors and tutors, hire additional staff, and offer stipends and retention bonuses to current teachers, she wrote.
School districts can use ISBE's Teacher Assignability Tool to find current teachers who may be qualified to fill a vacancy through short-term approvals or previous qualifications.
Recent state law changes also allow new candidates to teach while fulfilling requirements for full licensure to reduce the teacher shortage.
District 211's Holmes suggested the state could offer alternative pathways or embedded work experiences for people to become teachers, allowing them to switch careers and enter education from other jobs.