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Fairmont Elementary

WCCUSD substitute teacher shortage hurting students, burning out teachers

on April 25, 2022

After hearing of the substitute teacher shortage last November in the West Contra Costa Unified School District where her kids go to school, Katie Ferrell put in an application to help out.

As a former high school English teacher, Ferrell thought it’d be a good way to ease back into working while supporting her children’s school. She had planned to work only a few days but ended up doing a couple of long-term assignments and now substitutes on average four days a week. She sticks to Fairmont Elementary School in El Cerrito but admits she’s been tempted to work at neighboring districts for better wages, where the pay would sometimes be a difference of about $130. 

When Ferrell received her first paycheck, she noticed it was about the same amount she was making as a substitute 20 years ago in Vacaville.

“I was still willing to do it because I have kids in the district,” she said in an interview. “As far as trying to make money, that was hard.”

Fairmont Elementary
After a year and a half of remote learning, a shortage of substitute teachers has interrupted learning at WCCUSD schools. (Julie Bisharyan)

Like many other districts, WCCUSD doesn’t have enough substitute teachers to meet the demand for them. The problem is partly due to a decreasing pool of teachers nationwide and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To address it, WCCUSD increased the pay rate to attract more subs, and reached out to parents and community members to fill vacancies. The state also reduced the academic requirements and application fees to help districts meet the emergency need.

The substitute shortage not only affects teachers, who have to sacrifice prep time to fill in for their absent colleagues, but also students who suffered through remote learning only to return to classrooms where instruction time is lost because of a lack of teachers.

Angelica Flores, a Richmond High School senior, said it’s difficult to learn new material when a teacher isn’t there to explain it. This year, she said, that frequently has been the case. 

“When I look for a teacher, I knock on the door, and they’re not opening. And the teacher next door is like, ‘Oh, he’s not there. He’s subbing for another class,’” Angelica said.  

To avoid a teacher’s strike, the district agreed in January to union demands that it beef up coronavirus safety protocols and increase the pay rate by $60, to $250 per day, for short-term substitutes and by $80, to $280 a day, for long-term substitutes. Before that, WCCUSD paid the second-lowest rate per day for substitute teachers in the area, at $190, well below the average of $237. San Jose Unified School District paid the most at $320. 

“Our goal is to offer our valued substitutes a more competitive pay without causing our neighboring districts to drive up their rates too,” Robert McEntire, WCCUSD’s interim chief business official, said during a February presentation. “We don’t want dollars to be the reason that people choose not to join our district as a substitute.” 

“When I look for a teacher, I knock on the door, and they’re not opening. And the teacher next door is like, ‘Oh, he’s not there. He’s subbing for another class.'” (Angelica Flores, contributed photo)

In January, when the omicron variant of the coronavirus was raging, there were about 4,017 teacher absences in WCCUSD, district records show. But only 37% were covered by a substitute teacher, the records indicate. 

According to several teachers, elementary school classes without subs would often split students up into other classrooms –– potentially pushing room capacity guidelines. In middle and high school grades, teachers sometimes would cover for their colleagues during their prep periods.

Teachers who give up prep time to substitute are paid an extra $45 per day. But they then have to catch up on their prep work at home –– hours they are not paid for. 

“I couldn’t tell you the last day I was not subbing,” Arvind Reddy, a history teacher at Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante, said in a February interview. 

According to a January survey by the National Education Association, 74% of educators said they had to fill in for colleagues or take on other duties because of staff shortages, and 90% said they felt burnt out. The pandemic has taken its toll, with 55% saying because of it, they plan to leave education sooner than expected, an increase from 37% in August.

Ana Guzman, a first-grade teacher at Chavez Elementary School in Richmond, believes higher salaries are needed –– especially in the high-priced Bay Area –– to encourage more people to become teachers. If not, she said, many more will walk out the door. 

 “Some new teachers come and they’re very motivated to work,” she said. “But once they see all the hard work and the little pay, it’s demoralizing for them, and they switch careers.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in January that temporarily lowered state barriers that had delayed substitute teacher hiring. The $102.50 fee for a teaching permit has been waived until June. The order also suspends certain regulations to allow retired teachers and staff to return as substitute teachers without it affecting their retirement status.

WCCUSD launched the “Whole Child Whole Community” campaign in January to recruit community members, such as parents and retirees, to substitute for teachers as well as for other roles across the district. The goal is to recruit 100 new substitute teachers.

As a result, several parents, like Ferrell, have applied to help out their children’s schools. Since January, the district has received 74 substitute teacher applications. Many applicants, however, have found the hiring process to be slow and arduous, with the district taking up to a month to reach out to applicants. 

Fairmont Elementary
A mural outside Fairmont Elementary School in El Cerrito (Julie Bisharyan)

Rosalina Cabanyan, a human resources technician at WCCUSD, said there are checks and balances in the system that slow it down, including verifying information to make sure applicants meet state requirements, and getting security clearances from the FBI and other sources. 

While reducing the requirements expands the pool of potential applicants, it also raises concerns about underqualified substitutes being put in charge of a classroom.

“Are you asking for substitute teachers or are you asking for warm bodies in the room? Because there’s a difference,” School Board trustee Jamela Smith-Folds said in an interview. She questioned whether relaxing the requirements was a good idea, noting that teaching takes specific skills.

Maggie Whitaker, a parent who has applied to be a substitute, has other concerns, after one substitute was particularly punitive and authoritative toward her child’s class. 

“I worry less about the ‘babysitter’ who doesn’t really move the needle forward and isn’t a great educator, and worry more about the person who comes in and creates trauma to a bunch of kids who have just gone through two years of the pandemic,” Whitaker said.

Pinole Valley High School senior Justin Trujillo recalled a substitute who didn’t abide by the school mask mandate. “You just might not always get the most qualified person to walk into that classroom,” he said. 

Francisco Ortiz, vice president of United Teachers of Richmond, acknowledged that teaching isn’t an easy profession. But he’s glad certain barriers to becoming a substitute are coming down because it will ease the burden on union members.

He said many teachers hesitate on taking a day off for something they need to do because they know they won’t have a substitute to cover their class.

Reva Kidd, a fifth-grade teacher at Fairmont Elementary, said she felt immense guilt after calling off work to stay home with her daughter, who had tested positive for COVID-19. She cried, knowing that she’d be leaving her students behind and burdening a colleague who would have to cover for her.

“I already hardly took days,” she said last month. “This year, I’m like, I have to be dying here or find whoever that angel is that I can book weeks in advance.”

Ultimately, students pay the steepest price when there is no one filling in for their teachers. Angelica Flores, the Richmond High senior who also is a student representative on the School Board, said that scenario has played out again and again this school year. It’s been common for her teachers to be out, either out of concern for their safety or from sickness or just burnout, she said. As a result, she’s spent a lot of time in the school theater, which she said is often where the classes of absent teachers are combined. 

She said students end up spending the class period doing their work online under the supervision of non-teaching staff members at the school.

Angelica said she’d text her friends before going to school to ask if her teachers were in or not. And many times, they weren’t. 

“So I’m not even going to go,” Angelica said. “What’s the point?”

This story was updated to correct where Katie Ferrell had worked as a substitute teacher 20 years ago.

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