Exclusive: How COVID-19 has impacted Utah’s substitute teacher shortage

The pandemic pushed Utah schools to find more substitutes, but the need for help still outstrips the supply.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "I try to make it fun," said Jack Legge, 73, of substituting for Mrs. Grandstaff's 2nd graders at Northlake Elementary in the Tooele School District. Legge substitutes for several schools in the district.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

When Joshua Lamore opted not to put his name in the substitute teacher pool this year, the decision had nothing to do with the risk of catching COVID-19.

Lamore’s wife teaches math, and this spring — when schools statewide turned to remote learning at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic — he witnessed firsthand her struggles to convert to an online model.

“I got to watch my wife teach and the other teachers teach and all digitally, and they were losing their minds,” said Lamore, who substituted for two years in Orderville schools in the Kane County School District. “... They were doing three times the effort for the same amount of work.”

This school year, teachers have been asked to balance both online and in-person learning simultaneously. And that, said Lamore, is beyond his skill level.

“I knew,” he added, “that I wasn’t going to be able to do a good enough job and give the kids what the teachers would need.” So in a decision he “didn’t enjoy making,” he got the required license and became a bus driver for the district.

Utah’s perennial drought of substitute teachers is even more severe this year, with the fallout from COVID-19. Districts statewide have put recruiting efforts into overdrive and stretched thin their stopgaps — including bringing in more teacher aides and reducing in-person school days.

Yet as they head into the illness-incubating winter months, the substitute pools remain untenably shallow at many schools.

“I wouldn’t call it dire, but it is hard. It is challenging,” said Joseph Fitzgerald, who oversees the substitute pools for school districts in Utah, Arizona and Mexico as regional district manager at recruiting firm ESS. “We’re writing a playbook for a pandemic that we’ve never had before.”

Filling, then draining the pool

A stick of chalk could be reduced to a nub writing the numerous reasons substitutes haven’t returned to classrooms during the pandemic. The obvious one is fear for their own health or the health of someone close to them. The lack of health benefits is another. The flexibility that many saw as a perk in other years may now be interpreted as job instability. Some stay home to teach their own children.

Districts saw the substitute crisis brewing this summer as their administrators began discussing how to safely hold in-person classes.

In a typical year, they already would not be able to find a sub for a class about 5% to 7% of the time they needed one. With the social distancing urged during the pandemic, the deficit has only gotten worse; retirees and grandparents make up a large part of most substitute pools, and the virus poses a greater risk to older adults and those with preexisting health conditions.

The fill rate for substitute slots at most Utah schools now hovers around 87%. That’s better than the 75% national average but is still down nearly 10 percentage points from an average year.

The pandemic has “obviously just shed a lot of light on the issue,” and “worsened an already challenging situation,” said Brittna Valenzuela, Southwest region vice president for Kelly Education, a national entity that manages substitutes for seven public school districts and numerous private and charter schools in Utah.

In the weeks leading up to the first days of school, many districts posted recruiting pleas on their websites and on Facebook and other social media outlets. They asked their PTAs to put out the word to parents and plastered ads on job sites like Indeed and K12JobSpot.com.

They promoted their safety measures and promised to supply personal protective equipment. Some guaranteed subs the ability to reduce their contact points by scheduling them to work within just a few schools in the district.

And more people have signed up. Valenzuela said Kelly Education’s seven Utah accounts have grown their pools by about 5% to 10% over last year. But it’s still not enough.

“The challenge we face this year isn’t so much about supply as it’s about demand,” Kirsten Stewart, a Canyons School District spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune. “The district processed more applications in mid-October than we did in all of last year. Our emergency substitute applications have almost tripled.

“Even so,” she added, “it has been a daily challenge to meet the need for substitute teachers in our schools.”

Calling in sick

Teachers who contract the virus need to be out of the classroom for at least 10 days after testing positive or first showing symptoms, according to state guidance and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s longer than for a cold or even the flu.

And until a change that eased quarantine rules last week, those who were in close contact in school with someone who tested positive for the virus were asked to stay home for 14 days. So a single case could ultimately result in the loss of a handful of instructors for weeks.

That’s to say nothing of the mental stress caused by the virus and the additional days that may be lost because of it.

Some hours can be gained back by reducing field trips and extracurricular events, for which subs are typically called. In a more significant step, most districts lopped off a day per week of in-person classes from the calendar.

In some schools, kids still receive instruction on those days, but it’s all online. The thinking was that virtual classes are easier to cover in-house if a teacher calls in sick.

In others, the days are designated for asynchronous learning, when kids work on their own. Fridays have been popular for asynchronous learning, ESS’s Fitzgerald said, as it’s the day of the week that historically requires the most substitutes.

Plus, asynchronous learning days free up a day for teachers to take care of doctor visits, trainings or other appointments that might typically cause them to call in a sub.

In addition, schools have added more aides and in-building help, like permanent substitutes who work at a school on a regular schedule and fill in classes as needed.

When no subs can be found, they ask teachers to give up their planning period as a band-aid. If that fails, they’ll bring in administrative staff or, in extreme cases, double up classes.

“There’s not a whole lot more we can do,” Doug Perry, a spokesperson for the Murray School District, said, noting even he may be called upon to cover a class this year. “We’re hoping and crossing our fingers at this point.”

One trick the Murray district hasn’t tried yet is raising substitute pay rates.

Upping the ante

Former stay-at-home mom Annette Smith had considered subbing after moving from Wisconsin to Tooele last summer. If money had been her main concern, she said, she would have gone to work at mattress firm Purple, where both her husband and recently graduated daughter found well-paying jobs.

But her priority, she said, was making connections within her community.

Still, when she learned she would receive an extra $10 per day as part of the district’s “COVID pay,” it sealed her decision.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "I just want to help them understand what's going on and get the concepts," said Annette Smith, a Grantsville para-educator who works with special education students in the severe unit at the school, Dec. 17, 2020. Smith was a subsitute teacher for the Tooele School District until she found full time employment six weeks ago as a para-educator.

“I was already interested,” she said, “and then they said that and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m definitely [interested]. Count me in.’”

Districts from Garfield County to Canyons have raised their pay for subs this year. Some are regular cost-of-living increases. Others are directly tied to the coronavirus, like Jordan School District’s $20-a-day bump.

That’s peanuts compared to incentives offered by some districts in other states, however. One in Massachusetts nearly doubled its substitute wages this year, from $85 a day to $165.

Perry said the Murray district already has one of the highest base pay rates in Utah for a sub who meets the state’s minimum qualifications. That includes being age 19 or older (or 21 or older for grades seven to 12), having a high school diploma and up-to-date vaccinations, and passing a background check.

The Murray district’s $100 base pay was second-highest in the state behind Park City School District ($106) last year. It’s now the fourth best, after Canyons ($108) and Jordan ($104) districts. Grand County, which raised its pay, and Granite, which didn’t, aren’t too far behind, at $98 for a seven-hour day.

But those are the exceptions.

According to the publication Business Insider, Utah’s sub pay ranks seventh worst in the nation, with an annual average of $21,300. That correlates with a recent analysis of pay rates by Kelly Education. It found that, in Utah, the average hourly rate for substitutes is $10.72, compared to an average of $14.06 in the other 30 states in which Kelly Education has a foothold.

Utah’s average pay is 48% higher than the state’s minimum wage of $7.25. It needs to be closer to 70%, the report said, or a raise of about $5 an hour, to “attract and retain quality substitute educators.”

That’s in a normal year. COVID-19 has made it even more difficult. Even with unemployment rates the highest they’ve been since 2014, a bigger paycheck may not be enough incentive for people concerned about their health.

Perry said that’s a main reason the Murray district hasn’t gone that route. “That would be an option,” he said, “but I don’t know if that would necessarily work to create a solution.”

The Wayne County School District also considered raising its rates. With a base pay of $9 an hour, the four-school district just north of Capitol Reef National Park pays the second least in the state.

But the district has also struggled to fill other positions, according to business administrator Tyler Newton.

“I’m sure that a pay rate significantly higher than what we are paying would coax a few others to sign up. At that point, however, we risk cannibalizing our existing staff,” Newton told The Tribune in an email.

“A cook or paraprofessional who can make more as a substitute and enjoy the added flexibility,” he said, “would not hesitate to move and then we are left with holes elsewhere.”

Other districts offering some of the state’s lowest pay rates have reported no issues with finding substitutes. The Morgan County School District in northern Utah pays uncertified subs $70 a day, the third-lowest daily rate in the state. Still, spokesperson Gwen Romero said the district’s pool grew this year.

“It’s people wanting to help out,” Romero said. “That’s part of what the community is known for.”

‘Make a difference’

British expatriate Jack Legge felt at home as soon as he stepped into a Tooele School District classroom for his first substitute teaching gig last year. Since then, the retired architect has become a staple in the district’s elementary schools, working about four days a week.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "I try to make it fun," said Jack Legge, 73, of substituting for Mrs. Grandstaff's 2nd graders at Northlake Elementary in the Tooele School District. Legge substitutes for several schools in the district.

Since September, he’s accepted assignments at eight schools. “It suits me perfectly,” Legge said. “I do what I want, when I want.”

Legge likes the flexibility. He also appreciates the opportunity. As a man older than 65, he said, in England he would be expected to stay out of the workforce and perhaps spend his time puttering away in a garden.

That’s not something he’d be ready to do even if he didn’t need the money, he said, which he does, after buying a home on a 3-acre parcel just outside Tooele.

For him, the risk of getting the virus wasn’t worth losing the benefits of subbing.

“You have to take your chances,” said Legge, who described himself as a fervent mask wearer. “I’m there for the friendships, and for the pocket money as well.”

That’s the sentiment of Lamore, the father of two students at Orderville High, and Smith in Tooele as well. They chose subbing because they needed jobs, but they have stayed within the districts because they feel a connection and a duty to their community.

Smith said she recognized the pandemic would put schools “in dire straits.” “I was willing to take less of an income,” she said, “to feel like this was a rewarding job.”

She left the sub pool last month, however, to teach in a different way. After a supervisor mentioned how hard it was to hire a paraeducator to work with kids with severe disabilities, she got that job.

Still, Stewart, who works in the Canyons district, said people like Smith serve as a good example. Schools have mostly cut off in-class volunteer opportunities. Yet those interested in serving can help just as much by subbing — and get paid for it to boot.

“This,” Stewart said, “is one impactful way for parents and community members to make a difference and show support.”

— If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com.