The pandemic is putting a spotlight on the teacher shortage in Connecticut.
School districts are preparing for as much as 10 percent of their staff not to return in the fall.
Now there’s concern that there may not be enough substitute teachers, which were already in high demand before the pandemic, to bridge the gap.
“Every district that I know of has a shortage of qualified substitutes every single year,” said Southington Schools Superintendent Timothy Connellan.
In a national survey conducted last winter by EdWeek Research Center and Kelly Education, which supports upwards of 50 Connecticut school districts, 60 percent of the 2,000 school administrators interviewed (including 35 to 40 in Connecticut) said substitute teachers were increasingly filling permanent teacher vacancies. More than 70 percent expected the need for substitute teachers to increase, while half said teacher vacancy rates would increase.
The same survey found that just 54 percent of the approximately 250,000 teacher absences each day were filled.
That was before the pandemic hit the US.
“We fully anticipate that the shortage will continue and for the short term, actually get worse,” Kelly Education Vice President Brad Beckner said.
Beckner said we won’t know whether there are enough subs to fill the teaching gap until districts release their final back-to-school plans.
“What we do not want to happen is to take a cohort of students and disperse them across the school because we don’t have someone to cover the class and that is alarming,” pointed out the superintendent for Waterbury schools, Dr. Verna Ruffin.
As districts try to fill open teaching positions with full-time teachers, they know substitutes will play an important roll in the fall and are looking to employ more permanent subs, instead of ones that move from classroom to classroom or building to building.
“If we’re operating with cohorts of students, we want the staff interaction to mirror that,” said Connellan.
The state has also temporarily given districts the flexibility of hiring substitutes without a college degree for short-term jobs of 40 days or less. Longer substitute teaching positions must still have a four-year degree.
Kelly Education now trains subs in remote teaching, which Maria Saverino experienced with the New Britain kindergarteners she taught last spring.
“It was a challenge this past year,” she said.
Saverino added that New Britain schools have already offered her a choice of three different long-term substitute teaching jobs this fall.
Despite the unknowns going into the next school year, she said she’s hoping to be in person with the children as much as possible.
“I feel that I get a better understanding and learning from the students if I’m in front of them teaching from the material,” said Saverino.
Ruffin said her district is working hard to fill positions with full-time teachers.
“When we think about opening up in this COVID-19 environment and we think about opening up with a substitute, that weighs heavy on my heart. That’s not the best way to be able to do this,” she said.
Beckner predicted the need for subs will only grow, but so could the opportunity for those out of work.
“Because of the disruption in the workforce, we’re actually seeing more and more people who are interested in substitute teaching,” he explained.
However, the same coronavirus concerns that could keep full-time teachers home may also impact the availability of substitutes, especially retired teachers who are in the high-risk category.
After retiring from 30 years in special education, Doug DeLaRoche returned to the classroom as a substitute teacher for the first time last year.
“I thought when I finished teaching, that was just a chapter closed in my life,” said DeLaRoche. “I really have fell in love with and found a passion.”
Despite being 61 and having respiratory issues, DeLaRoche has signed up to substitute teacher at Granby Memorial Middle School this fall.
“I realize there’s going to be a risk. I realize the challenges that are going to be there,” he said. “I guess it’s just students, making a difference.”