District Trendline

Substitute teachers during the pandemic: requirements, benefits, and pay

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"Substitute teacher shortage grows as the start of the school year looms
(August 31st, NBC Connecticut)

"Pandemic makes teacher substitute shortage more pressing"
(August 31st, The Buffalo News)

These are just some of the headlines that have dominated the local media outlets throughout the country during the past month.

As districts have geared up to reopen schools for the new academic year, some are discovering that there's a bigger issue finding qualified substitutes than teachers. According to a recent EdWeek Research Center and Kelly Education report, districts have only been able to fill about 54% of their substitute needs.

Although districts reopening schools virtually may have less need for substitute teachers due to teachers' reduced exposure to illness, districts reopening in-person need more substitutes than normal, as social distance measures reduce class sizes and teachers may be absent more often due to increased exposure to illness.

Given the expectations of a shortage of substitutes, some states have started to relax their substitute requirements. Missouri reduced its education requirement from 60 college credits to only requiring a high school diploma. Iowa has also relaxed its substitute requirements, from requiring a bachelor's degree to now only requiring some college credits. (Both Missouri and Iowa are states in which most districts are reopening at least partially in-person, according to EdWeek's reopening tracker.) 

One district in New Jersey has opted for doubling their substitute teachers salaries, but tight budgets during a recession lower the chance of many districts being able to deploy that strategy.

In this District Trendline, we examine the current requirements and other policies surrounding teacher substitutes for 124 large school districts across the country. This sample includes the 100 largest districts in addition to the largest district in each state.

What are the current education and licensing requirements for substitute teachers?

The educational requirements for teacher substitutes have relaxed over the past eight years, and the number of districts in our sample that no longer require a bachelor's degree has increased. In 2013, 43% of the districts in our sample required less than a bachelor's degree of their substitute teachers. Today that fraction is 60%.

When it comes to licensing requirements, the reduction in required credentials is even more dramatic. In 2013, only 13% of the districts in our sample specified that substitute teachers need not have a license. Granted, 53% had no language at all formally addressing this issue back then. Today, 63% of the districts in our sample specify that no license is required for substitute teachers and only 7% have yet to weigh in.

At the risk of stating the obvious, although increasing the teacher substitute supply by lowering its requirements in theory means a greater availability of substitutes in the event of teacher absences, it also means that the average quality and effectiveness of the substitutes is likely lower. Given this dynamic, districts may need to consider strategies to support and provide training for their substitutes in ways they never have before.

What benefits do substitutes teachers receive?

As substitute teachers evaluate the risks and benefits associated with going back into a classroom, the potential exposure to illness—which increases exponentially with every different school they visit—and lack of familiarity with new instructional modalities are likely weighed against the wages and other work-related benefits they may receive.

The fact that substitute teachers in most districts are not eligible for health benefits, or the district does not even address the topic, is likely a deterrent this year more than ever. Of the 28 districts of our sample that do offer health benefits, 22 do so only for their long term substitutes. Only six districts—Duval County (FL), Dallas, Conroe, and El Paso Independent School Districts (TX), Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VA), and Oakland Unified School District (CA)—offer health benefits to all their substitute teachers.

The starting wages for substitute teachers in our district sample are in some cases at the same level as state-mandated minimum wages. Adjusting for regional inflation, starting pay for teacher substitutes ranges from $8/hour to $26/hour, with an average of $13/hour. A few districts in the northwest are outliers, offering what appears to be a more attractive starting pay for their substitutes, but the cost of living in those districts is considerably higher than elsewhere. The exceptions are Kanawha County Schools (WV), Des Moines Public Schools (IA), and Omaha Public Schools (NE), which pay a starting substitute wage of around to $20 per hour, in localities where the cost of living is below the national average.

The reality is that in the midst of a pandemic, districts don't have that many great options. Implementing policies that help districts secure a high-quality substitute pool will require a larger budget, which is not easy during a recession. Districts, given their modality of instruction (remote vs. hybrid), may find it beneficial to examine how they typically used their substitute budget and how it might play out differently this year. Given the size of the district, leaders may also consider the trade-off of securing quality permanent substitutes under a contract versus utilizing a day-to-day substitute pool.

Creative strategies to lower the risks

Some districts are being more strategic in regards to substitutes. Both Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) and San Francisco Unified School District (CA) are making sure substitutes receive the necessary training to successfully navigate the virtual teaching environment. This could be an important strategy with future positive repercussions, as a well trained pool of substitutes can become talent that can be tapped to enhance the teacher workforce.

In conversations with Fairfax County teachers and school board representatives, we learned that substitutes will be required to complete training prior to accepting virtual substitute assignments, which will include: navigating current virtual platforms, online classroom management, safety training for return to work, and PPE training. The district is compensating substitutes for completing the training.

A feature of virtual schooling that has received little play is the ability of teachers working in online settings to pre-record lessons and upload them for later viewing into their students' learning platforms. That's what Fairfax County is permitting, reducing its dependence on substitute teachers. Teachers can upload pre-recorded lessons covering up to a three-day absence, and leave assignments to complete during such absences.

That is one silver lining that the intensive technological turn that we are seeing in education may bring to this pandemic: the ability to use technology to partially surmount the substitute teacher shortage.