Some school districts already had a tough time recruiting substitute teachers, and the coronavirus pandemic may make it even trickier.
Thursday, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the district will offer virtual-only courses from Sept. 8 until Oct. 6, with the option of tacking on another four weeks. After that, it may have to reopen classrooms since the Texas Education Agency has threatened to cut funding for districts that don't return after eight weeks.
Many educators who teach in-person could become ill, a fact that worries in substitute teachers' supporters.
“I think if everybody was back to the classroom as normal, there would be a severe shortage [of substitute teachers],” said Geoffrey Smith, president and CEO of STEDI.org, an organization that helps train substitute educators.
School districts nationwide are struggling to find the best way to teach amid the coronavirus pandemic, be it online or face-to-face. It’s also complicated efforts for recruiting substitute teachers, many of whom are worried about catching COVID-19 themselves.
At the end of July, Dallas ISD posted a notice that it would be hiring substitute teachers ahead of the fall semester. After Oct. 6, subs could be tasked with accommodating in-person courses, sometimes for extended periods.
Substitute teachers will receive safety training before starting work at Dallas ISD, said Juan Vega, the district’s human capital management deputy chief.
In addition to online and in-person learning, Vega said substitutes may also fill in at the cafeteria or IT departments. Those with 60 hours of college credit or a bachelor’s degree are preferred, although they are not required to be certified.
The district will also offer them professional development from multiple departments when they come onboard, Vega said.
“Substitutes are continuing to apply … so I think we’re in a good space,” he said.
It’s a confusing time to be a substitute teacher, said Amanda von Moos, co-founder and managing director of Substantial Classrooms, a national nonprofit geared toward improving substitute teaching.
Although some substitute teachers are worried about catching the virus, von Moos said many others are anxious to get back to work.
“It is a job for people; it’s their livelihood,” she said. “I think lots of subs are there because they really care about students, and they find meaning in supporting teachers when they need to be out.”
For the most part, districts pay substitute teachers hourly and at low wages, von Moos said. In Texas, they earn an average of $23,340 per year as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, one Corpus Christi school official told KRIS 6 News that substitute teaching may become a competitive gig since the coronavirus pandemic resulted in widespread job loss. In June, Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington’s unemployment rate was 8.4%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Many retired teachers, as well as those who are caretakers for ill family members, are attracted to substitute teaching because of its flexibility, von Moos said. Those same people may be wary of teaching in a classroom setting where coronavirus spread is likely, she said.
Others may be willing to return to in-person learning environments, but von Moos said only 3% of districts provide subs with health insurance. It's also unlikely for them to receive paid sick days, she said.
Many substitute teachers will be required to teach virtually, Smith said. As such, it’s important for them to learn how to use online platforms such as Zoom, Google Classroom and Canvas.
“When you have 30 kids or so and they’re all waiting for you to navigate the system, that could be a challenge for some,” he said.
For districts that are implementing online learning only, Smith said that the need for substitutes will diminish. That’s because sick teachers can still upload learning material from home, and it’s easier for other permanent educators to help them if needed.
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Before the pandemic, substitute educators would only have to fill in for either short or long-term periods, von Moos said. Now, however, they'll be tasked with working medium-length durations.
If a teacher catches the coronavirus, they may be gone for around two weeks, von Moos said. It could be challenging for substitutes to advance curriculum in a meaningful way during that time, she said.
Those districts that hold classes in person should implement “learning bubbles,” von Moos added, where substitute teachers are consistently assigned to the same school or classroom. That way, they may have an easier time building a rapport with students and staff, she said.
“We have all been through a collective trauma right now, and strangers coming into the classroom is hard for students, always,” von Moos said. “So the more that we can do to make sure that a sub is known to students … the better they’ll be able to do their job and the better students will feel supported.”