Credit: Betty Márquez Rosales/EdSource

Heliotrope Avenue Elementary students in Los Angeles Unified begin the school year.

California school districts, already struggling to find enough teachers for classrooms, are facing a substitute shortage so severe that officials at smaller districts fear temporary school closures.

Nevada Joint Union High School District, which serves 2,686 students in Nevada County, had 60 positive Covid cases by the beginning of the second week of school on Aug. 24. Three teachers and 200 students were quarantined.

“In the next two to three weeks I’m not sure how we will stay open,” said Superintendent Brett McFadden. “It’s possible I’m just going to run out of people and resources. I’m not complaining about the federal and state government. They gave us a ton of money. This isn’t a money issue, it’s a resource allocation issue.”

McFadden fears this school year will be a repeat of what happened last October when the district had to return to distance learning just two weeks after it reopened in a hybrid model of instruction.

“We ran out of adults to teach,” he said. “This year, our (Covid infection) numbers are even worse.”

The district’s substitute pool, already limited before the pandemic, has shrunk 30% to 35% since it began.

“I will stay open as long as I can,” McFadden said. “I don’t have enough capacity for independent study either. It is quite possible our cases will overrun us and force temporary closures. Lack of clarity and flexibility from the state is forcing us to just wing it.”

Many California school superintendents are concerned about the shortage of teachers and substitutes, said Kindra Britt, spokeswoman for California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.

It’s not just small school districts that are reporting teacher and substitute shortages.

Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 26,000 teachers and 600,000 students, had 486 school-based teaching vacancies on Aug. 10, but district officials say they have a “robust pool” of 3,488 substitutes to fill vacancies. The district typically uses about 1,900 substitutes each day.

Further complicating the staffing shortages is the state’s new requirement to provide independent study to students who can’t or don’t want to attend in-person instruction. The program requires some type of daily live instruction for children in transitional kindergarten through third grade and at least weekly contact with teachers for older students.

Districts need new independent study teachers because enrollment in the programs is increasing, Britt said. “They have the money, but there isn’t a teacher to hire, especially in these rural communities,” she said.

Konocti Unified School District, in rural Lake County, started the school year without the 10 to 12 teachers it needs to be fully staffed. District Assistant Superintendent Chris Schoeneman said he needs at least six more.

Finding teachers has always been difficult for schools in Lake County, located 90 minutes north of Santa Rosa. Its distance from the entertainment venues, restaurants and shopping that cities can provide make it a hard sell for new teachers. The district isn’t close to a university either, making it challenging to create a pipeline of interns and student teachers.

As a result, last June more than 50% of the district’s teachers either had less than five years’ experience or are working on an emergency-style permit, which doesn’t require them to have completed a teacher preparation program or to have taken all the required tests.

California has had a teacher shortage for years, but the problem has worsened since the pandemic began. Not only has the number of teacher candidates declined during the pandemic, but the state also has seen an increase in the number of teachers retiring.

In the past, substitutes were the answer, but many quit and found other jobs during the first year of the pandemic when school campuses were closed. Others don’t want to return to a classroom during the pandemic because of health concerns. Many districts reduced the number of substitutes on their rosters when they hired them as teachers on emergency or long-term substitute permits.

This year Konocti Unified has so few substitutes that it can only cover teacher absences 15% to 20% of the time, despite increasing long-term substitute pay and offering incentives.

When there are not enough substitutes, school district leaders generally rely on administrators or other credentialed staff such as mentor teachers, reading specialists, physical education teachers, performing arts instructors or visual arts teachers to take over classes. If there aren’t enough credentialed staff to take over a class, students in classes without a teacher are sometimes divided among other classes.

One day last week, Sundale Union Elementary School District Superintendent Terri Rufert was taking temperatures, giving Covid tests and applying ice packs to bumps on children who had taken a tumble because the district’s health aide was out. The principal at the district’s single school was filling in as the administrative assistant. The district counselor with a teaching credential was substituting in a class.

Down the hall, the doors between two rooms were left open, so a teacher in one room could monitor the students in the other as they took Zoom classes from their teacher quarantined at home. This is the first time this year the K-8 district of 756 students has had to resort to having one teacher watch over two classes, Rufert said. Last year it happened twice.

“My community asked me what would it take to shut the school down,” she said. “I said not enough staff to teach. Not enough teachers that wanted to Zoom into the classroom with aides.”

The Tulare County district, which had 30 substitutes last year, has only 10 this year. Of those, only four substitutes work exclusively for Sundale Union. Since the district opened on Aug 4 for the school year three weeks ago it has had enough substitutes for all the classes that needed them 65% of the time.

Rufert said the district didn’t have much of a problem hiring substitutes until last year, when it was only able to fill about 40% or fewer of the classes that needed substitutes each day.

“I was subbing. There were aides in the classroom with teachers Zooming in,” Rufert said. “I was worried.”

As a result, Rufert said, districts that once had enough substitutes in reserve to allow teachers or administrators to pick their favorites, now sometimes settle for substitutes they would not have hired before.

“Some are just babysitters,” she said. “They are just there. It’s a body.”

To encourage people to substitute, the district increased the pay from $110 to $125 a day for daily substitutes and from $125 to $135 a day for long-term substitutes. Raising the pay rate and hiring a few retirees as substitutes made a difference, Rufert said.

Los Angeles Unified was proactive about recruiting in the fall and spring and offered substitutes paid professional development and a salary of $33.75 an hour for daily substitutes and $45.67 an hour for long-term substitutes, said Los Angeles Unified officials. After 100 days of service, substitutes qualify for full medical benefits.

To keep up with the demand for teachers, the district has hired additional human resources staff to help recruit and onboard teachers. It also extended virtual interview hours for teacher candidates and is allowing them to complete required paperwork online.

To increase its teacher pipeline, the district is participating in three teacher-residency programs and is offering hiring stipends to new teachers who commit to working in the district’s highest-needs schools.

The shortage of substitutes at Chula Vista Elementary School District in San Diego County this year resulted in an emergency meeting of the district board on Aug. 4. After school reopened in mid-July, the district, which operates on a year-round calendar, could only find about half the substitutes it needed each day to fill teaching positions in the 28,000-student district.

District staff cited soaring substitute teacher salaries and the need to be competitive with the pay being offered in neighboring districts as the reason for the pay raises. The district also had to ensure it paid more than people could be paid on unemployment, said Jason Romero, assistant superintendent of human resources.

The board voted to temporarily increase the daily rate for substitutes from $122 to $200, the daily pay for long-term substitutes from $132 to $283 and to begin a marketing campaign to recruit substitutes from the community.

Like other districts across the state, Chula Vista also voted to hire at least one full-time substitute for each of its schools, paying $280 a day.

The district saw improvement in the number of substitutes willing to work within a week, Romero said. Even with only about half of the site substitutes hired, the district has managed to entice enough substitutes to fill in for sick teachers about 70% of the time, he said.

District officials throughout the state are hopeful that the state’s decision to loosen some credential requirements will open the door for more people to apply for a substitute credential. Since July, teacher candidates can use eligible coursework to prove they have the basic skills required to teach, instead of taking the California Basic Education Skills Test, or CBEST.

After the requirements changed, Chula Vista Elementary School District launched a marketing blitz on social media that targets parents with bachelor’s degrees. Potential substitutes must apply for a 30-day permit, submit an application and pass a background check.

But it’s Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent executive order that really gives Romero hope. The order allows retired school staff to return to school campuses to help fill staffing shortages without waiting 180 days after their retirement, as has previously been required.

Last Thursday night, district officials sent automated calls to recently retired teachers and principals asking for their help. Some school principals made calls themselves. The district is already hearing from interested retirees, Romero said.

Elk Grove Unified School District, in Sacramento County, is proposing the biggest pay hike of the districts contacted by EdSource. The district would pay retired teachers and counselors, as well as teachers and substitutes on contracts, $350 a day to substitute. They are currently paid $200 for a full day.

The school board also will consider raising daily and long-term substitute pay by up to $25 a day. Pay depends on the number of days a substitute works in the district. Pay raises would be retroactive to Sept. 1 if the board approves the pay raises next week.

“Our substitute teachers are essential,” said Superintendent Christopher Hoffman. “They help us efficiently provide professional development for our teachers, and with many being retired EGUSD teachers, they also have established relationships with our students and site personnel, making them our preferred substitutes. That merits a pay increase.”

Casey Taylor, executive director of Achieve Charter Schools in Paradise and Chico, said the state’s decision to relax requirements has helped to increase the pool of people eligible to substitute. She also emailed families recently explaining the school’s staffing problem and asking for help.

“It’s asking the community to help solve a problem on behalf of our students,” she said. “They are reaching out to people that they know, and some are planning to get their own emergency credential.”

Achieve has 94 students in kindergarten through fifth grade at its two school sites. It has six teachers and one substitute.

The Paradise site had to close its kindergarten classroom for 10 days, beginning Aug. 23, because it did not have a substitute for the teacher, who was in quarantine after being exposed to Covid. The students are now on independent study and the teacher is instructing them virtually from her home.

“It’s time to get creative in the community,” Taylor said. “We are taking advantage, certainly, of the allowances the state has made for people to get their emergency credential and reaching out to the community to get people trained so we don’t have to close down classrooms.”

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