San Jose High senior Jordan Fricke knows of one class that’s had a revolving door of three long-term substitute teachers so far this fall. Berkeley High School teacher Hasmig Minassian has seen a librarian supervise four classes because no one else was available. Logan Mengotto’s father said his son didn’t have a teacher in two classes the first week at Hercules High School.
Public schools throughout the Bay Area and the state are grappling with a spike in teacher absences and vacancies as schools have reopened, coupled with a shortage of substitutes, leading them to increase pay for subs, offer signing bonuses for new hires and ask other school and district staff members to take over classes.
The teacher shortage was already a problem, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Some teachers retired rather than return to in-person classes and more young teachers — normally prime candidates to be substitutes as they look for full-time work — have been snapped up by the dozens in districts struggling to fill vacant full-time positions. Some districts say their pool of substitutes has shrunk by as much as two-thirds.
The problems have already prompted a new provision in AB167, signed last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom, doubling the time a long-term substitute can spend in class to 60 days. Still, districts think the Bay Area is being forced to take unusual steps.
“Teachers are voluntarily giving up their prep periods to teach classes for absent colleagues,” said Berkeley Unified Superintendent Brent Stephens. “We’ve resorted to putting uncovered classes in the library or career center where students can study independently. Neither of these are acceptable remedies for the situation. They’re stopgaps.”
Stephens said his district has increased substitute pay from $195 to $225 per day. The district has 147 subs in its pool this school year, 21 fewer than before the pandemic. And it is able to fill 58% of sub requests this year compared to 69% in 2018.
From Alameda to Santa Clara to Contra Costa County, officials in seven districts all said they’re struggling to staff classes.
Palo Alto Unified Deputy Superintendent Trent Bahadursingh said his district last month also increased pay for substitutes, from $160 to $180 a day in the hopes of attracting more help. Still, the district has 111 substitutes this year, about a third of what it had before the pandemic.
“What a lot of us are addressing are the guidelines regarding vaccinations,” he said. “In terms of vaccination requirements or daily testing, when those first came out, everyone had to scramble to identify which substitute pools are qualified in terms of meeting the requirements. As those continue to change, it has an impact on the availability of people.”
Oakland Unified School District is also seeing a shortage of substitutes, which Director of Talent Development, Recruitment and Retention Sarah Glasband attributed to increased teacher absences as more people call out sick. At the start of the 2020 school year, the district had 10 teacher vacancies. This year, Glasband said, there were 25. Though the district has about the same number of subs this year, district communications director John Sasaki said “they aren’t taking as many assignments.”
Tim Hughes, a regional vice president for TNTP, which helps school districts across the country train and recruit teachers, said the pandemic has exacerbated the demand for educators.
“All of our programs and district partners are asking us for more teachers,” he said. “Many systems rely on recruiting teachers outside their geographic areas and folks have concerns about moving across the country during a pandemic. Fewer teachers are moving and people are being cautious about their health and safety.”
Bay Area teachers have long struggled with the region’s high cost of living and housing prices. But during the pandemic, some teachers say they’ve seen colleagues move out of the Bay Area or change careers entirely.
“I couldn’t do my job and live in this neighborhood if it wasn’t for my husband,” said Amber Marienthal, a fourth grade teacher at Allen at Steinbeck Elementary School in San Jose. “It’s becoming a job that people can’t do and live here.”
Marienthal said the substitute shortage has gotten so severe at San Jose Unified School District that counselors and other staff members are being brought in to temporarily fill substitute positions.
“I think a lot of people feel unfairly put upon,” Marienthal said. “We as teachers have been warned not to take time off unless you need to because you’ll be burdening your colleagues.”
San Jose Unified School District’s specialized personnel are on call four days a month to cover for any school that needs a substitute, said spokesperson Jennifer Maddox. Normally, the district has 240 to 250 substitutes available every day. This year, it has about 120, according to Maddox.
Counselors and administrators are also covering for substitutes at Fremont Unified School District, according to Superintendent CJ Cammack, who said filling positions in math, science and special education has proven especially difficult. The school district started the 2018-2019 school year with 406 subs and is now down to 379.
Not all districts lack substitutes. Mount Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County actually has about 100 more subs this year compared to the 2018-2019 school year. But the district has had 100 to 120 teacher absences per day this year, with an average of 42 jobs that aren’t being covered by subs on a daily basis, according to Director of Human Resources Ryan Sheehy. That’s twice as high as it was in 2018.
West Contra Costa Unified School District has seen a similar spike in uncovered jobs.
Blake Mengotto said his son Logan, an 11th grader at Hercules High, didn’t have teachers for either his 4th and 6th periods during the first week of classes.
“When you talk about the higher subjects, you’re significantly stunting students when you push back a week and that has a big impact,” Mengotto said.
Meanwhile, some teachers are feeling overwhelmed as they are continually being asked to plug the gaps.
“You’ll get an email almost every day saying ‘We have five classes that are uncovered. Can anyone cover on their prep period?” said Minassian, a 9th grade teacher at Berkeley High. “There is space built into a teacher’s day to rest and if you take that time to cover for a class, it’s going to have a long-term impact on your burnout and being able to rest your body and voice. We’re going to cover for our colleagues but it doesn’t come without a cost.”
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Author: Summer Lin