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Substitute Teachers Become ‘Gold Commodity’ For Schools

Since the pandemic began, school districts in Chautauqua County have learned to be ready for any eventuality, but the most difficult thing for which to prepare may be staffing shortages.

School districts across the region are experiencing difficulty finding substitute teachers, as well as substitute nurses, bus drivers, cleaners and maintenance personnel. What used to be a fairly simple procedure has become a challenge for school districts as they struggle to find coverage for absent teachers and staff.

An article on the front page of the Erie Times News on Dec. 9 stated: “Substitute pay climbs as high as $225/day as schools scramble to cover for absent teachers.”

While substitutes are few in number, part of the shortage may also be caused by the apprehension that many substitutes feel about working in a school. Schools in Erie County, Pa., as well as in Chautauqua County report that substitutes are exercising caution about entering an environment in which a person has tested positive for COVID-19.

This shortage of substitutes and the reluctance that some substitutes exhibit can be found nationwide. The Oct 13, 2021, issue of Education Week contained an article that stated: “Many substitutes are retired teachers who may be at higher risk for serious COVID-19 complications. They may not feel comfortable returning to school buildings among the ongoing pandemic.”

Several school districts in Western New York are not only struggling to find substitutes, but are advertising in an attempt to increase their pool of subs. Ripley Central School Superintendent William Caldwell said his district is “having an incredibly difficult time finding substitutes.”

Caldwell said Ripley has a very small pool (three to five) of dedicated substitute teachers that work in the district almost daily. “That’s all we have and sometimes that’s not enough,” he said. “We were holding our breath for a bit earlier this year when we had no nurse subs. Fortunately, Chautauqua Lake Central School was able to recommend someone for us to reach out and we now have at least one.”

At their meeting on Oct. 21, Ripley School Board members approved an “across the board” raise in substitute pay rates. Caldwell noted the importance of remaining on par with other districts.

“Substitutes are a gold commodity,” he said. “We have had plenty of sub shortage days. We have often had to ask teacher assistants to fill in, which takes them away from what they are supposed to be doing.”

Danielle O’Connor, Sherman Central School interim superintendent, said Sherman is experiencing the same substitute shortages seen elsewhere.

Like all districts in the area, Sherman is actively seeking to increase its pool of “substitute support staff, including teacher aides, transportation (bus driver), cleaners, and food service workers, school nurse and teachers,” O’Connor said.

A quick look at school districts’ websites show a need across the board. Chautauqua Lake Central School’s website states that the district is “looking to fill the following substitute opportunities: Per Diem Substitute Teachers in All Areas, Substitute Food Service Helpers, Substitute Cleaners, Substitute Bus Drivers, Substitute School Nurses and Substitute Clerical Workers.”

The Westfield Academy and Central School District is also looking for qualified substitutes. It’s website affirms the need for substitute teachers (certified and uncertified), teacher’s aides, bus drivers, cleaners, bus monitors and cafeteria workers. And, of course, substitute school nurses are in high demand.

“We have a need for daily substitutes,” said Westfield Superintendent Michael Cipolla. “Despite numerous advertisements, we are just not seeing as many applicants for daily substitute teachers. We are actively looking and interviewing when applicants come forward.”

Brocton Central School is accepting applications for teachers, teaching assistants, aides, bus drivers and cleaners. Clymer Central School states that it is seeking substitute teachers and teacher aides, as well as cleaners, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and school nurse substitutes.

If the current COVID outbreak continues and the teacher shortage grows worse, school districts in the area face the possibility of having to return to full remote learning because of staff shortages. Some districts have already begun to prepare for this eventuality.

O’Connor said Sherman is practicing preparedness for remote instruction. A letter was sent to parents Dec. 1, stating that “Teachers have been asked to send I-Pads, chargers, and instructional materials home with students each day in case we need to move to remote instruction immediately due to staffing shortages.”

“So, the district is being proactive by asking teachers and students to have materials at home in case we need to move to remote instruction,” she said. “Due to the high numbers of positive COVID cases and quarantine in the county, the district needs to ensure we have remote instruction available as an alternative.”

Caldwell said Ripley, which is a pre-K through sixth grade school, is small enough that the district can have materials ready to be dropped off or picked up, should the need arise. “We have not begun sending home materials in anticipation of going to remote instruction,” he said.

Added Cipolla regarding Westfield, “While we hope to never need to move to a fully remote learning platform, we are prepared to do so if necessary. Our teachers, administrators and staff continue to balance the need for daily substitutes. It has been a team effort and all on hands deck on some days.”

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