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Schools face ‘significant’ substitute problem

A common problem for public schools across the United States has only been amplified by a global pandemic: the shortage of substitute teachers.

New York and Pennsylvania schools have been no exception.

“It has been a significant problem for a number of years,” Jamestown Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Whitaker said.

Across the border, Gary Weber, director of administrative support services for the Warren County School District, has been dealing with the exact same issue. He attributes it to a requirement by the state Department of Education that requires substitute teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree.

“There are fantastic people out there who could be good substitutes who can’t because of that,” he said. “It’s a bigger issue that the Pennsylvania Department of Education needs to analyze in regards to the teacher shortage and how they can increase the teacher pool.”

Weber said that the demographics of Warren County particularly make this an issue.

“It’s just the numbers,” he said. “It’s nothing against people not having a bachelor’s degree: we’ve had a lot of people here who went into the workforce or stayed home with kids and that’s OK. That doesn’t mean that they’re not knowledgeable, can’t work and that they wouldn’t be great substitutes”

Maureen Donahue, superintendent at Southwestern Central Schools on the outskirts of Jamestown, said that her colleagues across the state probably would prefer substitute teachers to have a college degree.

“It’s not an easy job,” she noted. “Back 10 to 15 years ago, it was a bachelor’s degree but then we got to the point where this shortage wasn’t good and then it was those with two-year degrees.”

But Whitaker attributes the shortage to something else.

“There has been, for a number of years, a change in the perception of the profession of teaching,” he said. “COVID actually helped the trajectory of that perception but I think for a number of years prior, I know that the governor has talked poorly about education and educators, I know that he has made a number of statements that we increase the GPA requirements and academic skill of educators and when that sort of thing gets into the press and is publicized by the chief executive of the state, it impacts social perception of the field.”

Nevertheless, Donahue has been pleased to see a growing pool of substitutes that are recent graduates of her district that are working on their teaching degree.

“We’ve started to look at them and then you have teachers who have finished with student teaching but have another semester to go,” she said. “We’ve had teacher aides have like a two-year degree or don’t have a degree, but are going back to get their degree. While they’re going back to school, they make great substitutes.”

“It also reflects the changing demographic opinion of younger New Yorkers,” Whitaker added. “If you look at the statistics, we’re losing younger New Yorkers significantly. Things such as free college or free tuition, with the promise that you stay in the state for five years, is an attempt and a recognition on the governor’s part that there is this outflow of young talent and it’s an attempt to keep them here. For many years. When I was a new teacher and a substitute, it was a pathway into the profession. So as the profession goes, so goes the flow of substitutes.”

Still, the shortage has impacted smaller districts in different ways amid the pandemic. Some have had to transition to remote learning due a lack of coverage for teachers who might be under quarantine orders.

“It’s piecing together multiple different ways to cover a classroom which is not perfect, but it is very helpful if the teacher is quarantined and they are teaching remotely, then you’re looking for somebody in the classroom to help supervise,” Donahue said. “That piece, part of the pandemic, is teachers who can be remote home and still dial in and teach. You still have their teacher in front of them.”

Due to the size of the Jamestown district, Whitaker said the proportion likely would never force the district to close its doors due to a shortage.

“It’s a combination of good planning and good luck,” he said. “We’ve been lucky and we’ve created plans just in case. The luck part is that our staff impacts on quarantine: we’ve had zero in-school spread cases. All have come from community spread and that includes our staff. Staff absences have been spread across all of our buildings. The number may appear to be large, but it’s distributed in a way that it’s much less than it seems.”

One thing, Donahue noted, is constant.

“I don’t care how much of a good substitute you are, no one can replace the level of the teacher,” she said. “The teacher has rapport with their students. They live and breathe the curriculum, all of those together: that’s the best person to be in front of our kids.”

That has only proved itself ten-fold amid the unique circumstances that have faced the 2020-21 school year.

“Our staff has been incredible,” Whitaker said. “All of our staff members have been incredibly flexible and resilient and this is a time where they have had to reinvent themselves. If anyone is a teacher or, first or second year or if they have 10-15 years of experience, they are reliving portions of that very first year again. It’s different now than it ever has been. Had I not recognized that level of sacrifice, I would be remiss.”

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