Schools face substitute teacher, support staff shortage amid COVID-19

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published December 4, 2020

 Van Dyke Public Schools, including Lincoln High School, has been OK with finding substitute teachers while other districts have found it challenging.

Van Dyke Public Schools, including Lincoln High School, has been OK with finding substitute teachers while other districts have found it challenging.

Photo by Edward Osinski

METRO DETROIT — Educating students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an ongoing challenge.

Scheduling virtual, hybrid and in-person learning has been a continuous task for school officials. They have been carefully planning around updates from the Macomb County Health Department, the Michigan Department of  Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make decisions to keep students and staff safe as learning continues.

Another change came last month when in-person learning, both hybrid and daily, for local districts ceased temporarily when the MDHHS issued a new emergency COVID-19 order effective Nov. 18. The mandate — which has been extended through Dec. 20 — is an effort to curb the increasing COVID-19 infection rates in the state. Among the several restrictions included was that high school students must return to virtual learning. But in many districts where in-person learning was occurring at different levels, school officials decided to have all students return to virtual learning at this time.

There is another challenge school officials are facing during the 2020-2021 school year: a shortage in substitute teachers and support staff.

“Finding temporary help for our district has been especially challenging during the pandemic,” Royal Oak Schools Superintendent Mary Beth Fitzpatrick said in a prepared statement. “Following the health department and CDC guidelines for quarantining increases the likelihood that we need substitutes for a variety of positions. We currently have positions open for custodians, teachers, and support staff even though Royal Oak Schools is operating via all-remote classes.”

Birmingham Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Dean T. Niforos said there are several reasons for the substitute shortage that is affecting both the virtual programs and in-person learning.

Birmingham has many substitute teachers that are in their late 50s or 60s, including some retired teachers. Because the substitutes feel they are at risk for catching COVID-19, they informed the district’s administrators at the beginning of the school year they would not be available to substitute during the pandemic.

School officials also are finding that potential substitutes are not trained to use Schoology, Zoom or other virtual programs teachers have been utilizing since March when schools closed in Michigan.

“Teaching virtual is different,” Niforos said. “Some need more training and support.”

Niforos said another cause for the substitute shortage is that many subs are parents of school-aged children. Because their own children are learning virtually at home, they can’t sub at this time. In addition, long-term substitute teachers are needed when a teacher is out for maternity leave or medical leave and might not be available.

“It’s been more of a challenge to find subs overall with a shrinking pool,” Niforos said.

In Birmingham, some educators are teaching from home while others are teaching from their classrooms with necessary safety measurements in place. Some prefer coming to school to teach because all their supplies are there.

Many districts use EDUStaff, based in Grand Rapids, to find substitute teachers when needed. The third-party system receives input that a classroom substitute teacher is needed for a specific teacher and then the call goes out to find a sub. However, protocol for finding subs in a virtual world is different.

“You can’t use the system the same way,” Niforos said.

Niforos said that even before the pandemic finding substitute teachers was challenging. Substitute teachers must be flexible with their schedules and may not be available to work at certain times. They also need to work in a variety of areas. One day a substitute teacher will be with third graders at one school, in a high school English class the next day at another school, and maybe in gym class on the third day. Some subs only want to work with younger students, while others prefer secondary students.

Many people went into substitute teaching when they lost their jobs during the 2008 recession. Since then, they either returned to their jobs or found other jobs. At one time, the state required substitute teachers to have 90 college credit hours, but that was changed to 60 credit hours in an effort to attract more substitute teachers. Subs also undergo a background check.

“We want to see if they are capable of working with our students,” Van Dyke Public Schools Superintendent Piper Bognar said.

‘Finding bus drivers is always an issue’
Van Dyke has been holding virtual learning since the beginning of the school year, with the exception of special education students in small groups in the buildings.

According to Bognar, on average, there are some teachers that miss 0-2 days per year while others take up to 10 days off during a school year. The district often needed 15 subs per day prior to the pandemic. Van Dyke offers a small monetary bonus incentive to teachers who take fewer days off.

“It helps us with not having to find subs,” Bognar said. “It helps students see their teachers every day.”

Because students have been in virtual learning most of the school year in the Grosse Pointe Public School System, the district has fared better with the substitute teacher situation. There was more demand when the district’s K-5 students temporarily went back to school in a hybrid format. Although there were some substitute teachers uncomfortable teaching virtually, the district managed.

“We have a good sub pool,” GPPSS Human Resources Director Nicole Pilgrim said.

The Grosse Pointe district, however, has been having challenges getting substitute custodians to work in the district.

“It’s a position that is hard to find in general,” Pilgrim said.

After discussion with the custodian’s union, the district brought in Auxilio Services, a third-party contract service company that provides transportation and facility services to school districts. The company is based in Cincinnati with locations throughout Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

Auxilio has found substitute custodians to work in GPPSS alongside the district’s custodians. The sub custodians will earn an hourly wage and be paid through Auxilio Services. The company will submit an invoice to the district for payment. At press time, a contract was still being finalized.

“They did a great job recruiting individuals,” Pilgrim said. “I think we have a good 15.”

Grosse Pointe also has had challenges getting teacher aides at this time.

“The paraprofessionals, we’re struggling with hiring,” Pilgrim said. “We’re making it work with the staff we have. That’s been a slow process.”

Pilgrim feels one reason for the custodial and paraprofessional shortage is because people were making more money receiving unemployment as opposed to working during the pandemic. It’s also been difficult for working parents to find child care, as their own children are at home learning virtually.

“I would say child care is the biggest piece,” Pilgrim said.

Center Line Public Schools has fared better with the substitute teacher situation. As part of its procedures — prior to the pandemic — the district always has two to three substitutes per building on standby to be ready to teach should a classroom teacher be absent.

“It wasn’t as bad because we have our building subs,” Superintendent Joseph Haynes said. “They are utilized every day. We are still keeping them right now.”

When the district was in full virtual schooling, fewer substitutes were needed because many teachers were working from home. However, when Center Line temporarily brought back elementary and middle school students in a hybrid, the demand for subs increased.

“There was a need for substitute teachers,” Haynes said. “I know that districts that have been in hybrid longer than us have had difficulty.”

One area that has been challenging for Center Line during the pandemic is finding support staff, especially classroom aides and clerical workers. Other staff members are pitching in to handle those responsibilities, but it has not been easy.

“Custodians, I think we are full right now, but it’s difficult to find bus drivers,” Haynes said. “Finding bus drivers is always an issue.”

That’s because they require a commercial drivers license and school bus endorsement.

“I think COVID has removed a lot of people from the workplace,” Haynes said, adding people currently looking for work “have a greater selection of jobs to pick from. There are so many openings.”