When Toni Preston began substitute teaching for Cambridge Public Schools in November 2019, she monitored the online job listings throughout the day to snap one up before others beat her to it.
Now, whenever Preston isn’t already signed up to work, she’s sure to wake up to an early morning robocall from the district, informing her of the many unfilled openings that day.
“When I’m on a job, I have teachers who may see me in the hall or even drop in the classroom, asking me if I can cover for them,” said Preston, 76. “That tells me that they really need a sub.”
With Massachusetts school districts facing debilitating teacher shortages due to COVID-19, substitutes are among the staff members sorely needed but in scant supply. In an attempt to keep classrooms covered, school systems across the region are desperately trying to find anyone to fill in, as the most recent surge of the virus pummels the teaching population.
As incentives, districts such as Woburn and Brockton recently announced pay hikes to recruit more substitutes. Since the onset of the pandemic, both Boston and Cambridge have waived the requirement for substitute teachers to have a bachelor’s degree; Cambridge now requires at least one year of professional experience working with students, said spokesperson Sujata Wycoff, and Boston requires unlicensed candidates to pass an online course, according to the current job listing.
And yet, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, substitutes “just are not there.”
“The bar is as low as we’re going to get,” said Scott. “We are looking for any warm body who can come in, who’s able to pass muster with the local school district to substitute teach.”
“We’ve even talked about whether or not, later this year, we ought to be looking at recruiting some of our [higher-level] high school kids to come in and do some help,” Scott added. “It’s been a desperate call.”
But not enough have answered it. Boston Public Schools estimates currently an average of 90 teaching positions go unfilled each day, though some days hundreds of classrooms have been left without an educator. Cambridge Public Schools reported that between Dec. 11 and Jan. 12, there was an average of 16 unfilled teaching positions each day. But “that’s just the jobs that we know about,” said Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Education Association, the union representing Cambridge education workers.
When substitutes can’t be found, Governor Charlie Baker’s ban on a shift to remote learning in most cases means that local schools have had to improvise to keep their doors open. Some turn to teacher’s aides to fill in — but then the students they leave behind are “not getting the educational resources that they deserve and that have been budgeted for them,” said Monahan. At Boston Latin School, the largest school in the district with more than 2,400 students, classes were combined, sent to the dining hall and auditorium, and supervised by substitutes and administrators, according to an e-mail sent to families. Shortly after schools returned from winter break, Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius filled in for a fourth-grade teacher at the Hale Elementary School.
The shortage of substitute teachers is not limited to Massachusetts. Nationally, more than 75 percent of district leaders and principals said they were struggling to find enough substitutes to make up for teacher absences, even before the Omicron variant took hold, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey published in October 2021. Last fall, facing a dwindling substitute pool, Oregon created a new emergency substitute license, with far fewer requirements than the traditional license. In Texas, one public school district sent out a plea for parents to apply to be substitutes earlier in January. Often, schools that serve large numbers of students of color or low-income children struggle the most in recruiting substitutes.
More than once since returning from winter break, Leicester High School in Central Massachusetts has combined classes, put them in the cafeteria, and had substitutes or on-duty teachers supervise students as they do work on Google Classroom, said principal Ted Zawada. “On any given day, that could happen,” he said.
Boston Public Schools substitute AJ Helman, a recent Emerson College graduate who combines substituting with other part-time jobs, picks up a shift about once every two weeks. The demand is so high, however, Helman could be working in schools “almost every day.”
“There’s definitely a lot of turning down,” Helman said. “Almost every school I go into, there’s at least one class where it had to be turned into a study hall or a free period, because there just isn’t the coverage.”
The reasons behind the substitute shortage are many, said Colleen Hart, the substitute field representative for the Boston Teachers Union, which represents about 500 day-to-day substitutes. Retired teachers and others may feel the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is too high in an in-person environment, Hart said. Others may have found other employment during remote learning last year, when there were few virtual substitute jobs.
There are also unique health concerns for substitute teachers, due to the multiple schools and classrooms they regularly interact with. Substitutes who teach at a number of different schools may lack consistent testing or easy access to information about COVID-19 case numbers in individual schools.
“It goes both ways,” said Mark Canter, a substitute for Cambridge Public Schools, which provides access to testing for day-to-day substitutes but does not mandate it. “We’ve got more places to pick it up, but we also, should we happen to be asymptomatic and infected, we could be problematic for people.”
The occupational hazards have deterred some substitutes from coming back into the classroom. Leslie Burnes, who substituted for elementary schools in the districts of Wellesley, Dover, and Medfield, has not resumed teaching since March 2020 due to health concerns. She was planning on returning in January, once many younger students had been vaccinated — then, Omicron happened.
“I want to get in there,” said Burnes, who has substitute taught for more than a decade, “but I’m not going to go back now.”
While there is a greater urgency to enlist more substitutes amid increased COVID-related staff absences, issues related to recruiting and retaining are not new, said Monahan. “There was a shortage of substitutes even before the pandemic, but it’s just been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said.
Historically, many substitutes are paid low wages; in Boston and Cambridge, substitutes make anywhere from about $157 to $175 a day, but in smaller districts, that rate can be far lower. In Milton substitutes make $90 a day, according to a blog post from the superintendent. Substitutes also get benefits, such as health insurance, only after they’ve worked for a certain amount of time, Hart said, leaving many of them feeling undervalued.
“What this pandemic has pointed out,” Hart said, “is how critical they are to making our schools work.”