Some Newark schools are dealing with the double-edged sword of a shortage of substitute teachers combined with an increase in need as mandatory quarantines force teachers to stay home.
According to Christina School District Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton, the main reason for the reduction in available substitutes is that the retired teachers who make up the bulk of the substitute pool are no longer working because they are at high risk for COVID-19. Christina has had to contract more companies that provide substitute services than before the pandemic.
“If you’re a retired teacher, up until recently, you probably were not vaccinated,” said Shelton. “Potentially you were in one of those high-risk categories and you didn’t want to put yourself at risk for the very few dollars that substitutes make.”
Shelton said a substitute shortage already existed before the pandemic, leading Delaware to pass a law to allow college students in a teacher education program to earn the same pay for substituting as college graduates do, but the pandemic made things even worse.
Substitutes often have to supervise an in-person class while a teacher teaches virtually. Teachers can no longer “tough it out” through a minor illness, because what appears to be a cold could be COVID-19.
“It’s not a Christina issue, it’s not a Delaware issue, it’s a national issue,” said Shelton.
Newark Charter School lost about a third of its substitute pool, according to Assistant Principal Nick Russo. Unlike Christina, NCS hires substitutes in-house, with each of the school’s three buildings maintaining its own pool of substitutes, instead of hiring an outside company.
“A number of people who are on our sub lists decided not to sub this year,” Russo said. “So we were starting off with a deficit.”
The school’s board recruited parents and other community members to be substitutes. Russo said the strategy worked, and the school added several substitutes. The school has the same standard requirements as other school districts, requiring at least a high school diploma or a GED to work as a substitute.
“We have had a number of people stepping up to help us out. Some of them are alumni, which is nice,” said Russo. “We talked to them or interviewed them, they get the background check and a TB test, and then they can help us. We’re in a better spot than we were, but we’re certainly not quite where we were pre-pandemic.”
All three buildings at NCS are currently accepting applications for substitute teachers.
Meanwhile, other local schools have been able to avoid a substitute shortage.
Las Américas ASPIRA Academy uses private substitute companies but has not suffered from a lack of substitutes.
Substitutes at the language-immersion charter school often need specialized training because K-5 classes are fully bilingual. The school launched its last phase of re-opening in the beginning of March, bringing in 550 students for hybrid learning.
Head of School José Avilés credited the constant communication between administration, teaching staff and parents for a low COVID-19 infection rate. Communication, along with ASPIRA’s strict regulations around who is allowed in the building, reduced the need for substitutes compared to other schools.
“Something that I don’t know if any other district is doing, is that we implemented a policy where we ask the students and the staff members to test every two weeks and provide negative COVID results,” said Avilés. “That way, the people that are coming into the building, we already know that they have not been infected.”
For the Newark Center for Creative Learning, the idea of substitutes is a relatively new concept. The private school is so small with such a unique program that it’s often difficult to just invite a substitute for the day unless the substitute is a retired teacher or some other person who has experience with NCCL’s teaching style.
“Our teaching staff is really small, when we’ve been doing hybrid learning, everyone’s outside and everybody’s been really safe,” NCCL Administrative Director Lauren Evans said. “None of our teachers have needed to quarantine during our hybrid learning time, so we didn’t require any substitutes.”