Utah school districts are offering extra pay to attract substitute teachers. Will it work?

The pandemic continues to worsen a shortage of those filling in for sick and stressed teachers.

Jordan School District needs nearly 300 substitute teachers every day — but there aren’t enough to fill the staggering demand.

In nearby Granite School District, it’s even higher. And sometimes only about 60% of those spots can be filled without calling in coaches, principals, district administrators and even custodians to help watch over classrooms when a teacher is out sick.

Across the Wasatch Front and the state, districts say the shortage of subs is even worse this year than it was last year as the pandemic continues on. And it was a problem even before COVID-19.

“It’s just untenable at this point,” said Michele Jones, president of the teachers union in Granite. “It’s such an incredibly difficult situation for everybody, for teachers and for students.”

In recent weeks, several Utah districts have announced new incentives as they try to respond to what many in education are calling a crisis, both here and nationally. The hope is that pay increases and bonuses will attract more substitute teachers to sign up for the job.

Jordan School District, which covers the southwest corner of Salt Lake County, was the first to publicize its program this fall. It’s offering substitutes extra money, depending on how many assignments they accept — on top of a $7 per hour wage bump also approved last month for the position. Now, someone with at least a high school diploma can make $111 per day substitute teaching.

Those who work 15 days between Oct. 25 and Dec. 15 will get an additional $100 on top of that base pay. For 20 days, it’s a $200 bonus. If you cover 25 days during that period, you receive $300. And if you work 30 or more of the 35 possible days in the window, you are awarded the top $500 amount.

Sandy Riesgraf, the spokesperson for Jordan School District, said the rollout is temporary, to see if it helps. So far, she said, substitutes have been volunteering for more classes.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the response that we got,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”

She acknowledges it’s a little like trying to solve for the unknown variable in a math problem.

The district knows the sub pool has shrunk, with more retirees and grandparents that typically take those positions opting out over concerns of catching COVID-19 — particularly with no statewide K-12 mask mandate here this year.

And the district knows more teachers are requesting time off this year, for illness from the virus or exhaustion after a rough time teaching during the pandemic.

In a typical year, Jordan needs maybe 200 subs a day. To be 100 above that now, almost every day, is a challenge, Riesgraf said. But Jordan and others are still trying to figure out what will be enough — with a limited school budget — to change the worsening situation.

How bonuses compare

Ben Horsley, the spokesman for Granite School District, said it’s a funding issue and school districts are competing with each other for the same substitutes — as well as with outside companies that might be able to pay more.

“It’s really challenging when we can pay $12 or $14 an hour, based on what the state gives us, when you have Amazon across the street paying $16 to start with a signing bonus,” he noted.

And with the four other districts in Salt Lake County, he added, “It really is a matter of competing against and incentivizing people to come sub with us over them.”

Riesgraf at Jordan agreed and said they’re also competing with nearby Davis School District to the north and Alpine School District to the south, the two biggest in the state: “It’s the pool that we’re all trying to access to fill those spots.”

Districts are somewhat limited in what they can do, though.

They are allocated money each year by the state based on how many students they enroll, in addition to what a district might raise through property taxes. Districts have to budget that funding for teacher and employee salaries, building repairs, support programs, like reading interventions, and more.

Any money that goes to sub incentives is, therefore, not going toward something else.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michele Jones teaches math at Cyprus High School in Magna on Thursday Jan. 3, 2019.

Jones with the Granite Education Association, who is also a math teacher at Cyprus High, is worried about that, particularly as student learning has been impacted by the pandemic. She doesn’t want resources diverted. But she’s also seen the sub shortage firsthand and experienced the stress.

She is often asked to fill in for other sick teachers at her school during her one prep period. Teachers get extra pay for doing that, but Jones said it also comes at a cost. She’d otherwise use that time for planning and grading assignments and tutoring students who need extra help after learning online during the pandemic.

In elementary schools, administrators are trying to fill in. But sometimes when a substitute isn’t available, a class is split in two and divided between other teachers, who then each are dealing with 45 students instead of their typical 30.

“And we’re all just overwhelmed and burnt out at this point, so it’s one more thing, one more job added on,” Jones said.

Horsley said Granite has heard from the union on that and is trying to find more subs to alleviate it. The district has had some unfilled positions this year and is using money budgeted for those to try to attract more substitutes. It’s offering bonuses, similar to Jordan, based on how many shifts a sub signs up for.

If a substitute does five jobs in a month, they get an extra $50. If they do 10, they get $100. And for 15, they get $150. It continues up to $300.

That works out to an extra $10 a day and is applied retroactively through October, Horsley said. It also continues through the end of the academic year. The district intends to run data and possibly increase the amounts, if needed.

Jordan’s program, which expires in December, starts at a lower rate of a little more than $6 extra per day at the bottom. But for someone who does 30 sub jobs, it works out to nearly $17 additional per day. So there’s an added incentive to work more.

The district also requires that for a substitute to qualify, they can’t cancel a job they’ve already accepted.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Pay increases

It’s also not just the bonuses that subs might consider, but also the base pay.

Jordan increased that to $111 for someone who meets the state’s minimum requirements to be a substitute: That includes being age 19 or older (or 21 or older for grades seven to 12) and passing a background check.

It now has the highest base pay in the state (after a previous bump of $20 a day last year during the pandemic), with Canyons School District, also in Salt Lake County, falling second at $108.

To attract more candidates, Granite dropped its requirement for substitutes in some positions to have a high school diploma. Jordan has not. But Granite’s base salary is slightly lower, at $99 per day.

Both districts do pay more, though, for those with higher education. A former licensed teacher in Jordan, for instance, can make $160 a day by substituting in a classroom. A substitute with a master’s degree in Granite can make $109.

Rather than launch an incentive program, Davis School District in northern Utah is trying a different approach by focusing on that base pay rate. It previously had one of the lowest rates in the state at $71 per day without a college degree.

It announced an increase to that this month. Substitutes without a college degree — though they still need to have graduated high school — can now get $14 more, at $85 a day. Those with at least an associate’s can earn $105 per day. But they must be at least 20 years old.

There’s an additional bump if a subbing teacher agrees to a long-term assignment for more than 20 days.

Davis Assistant Superintendent John Zurbuchen said: “Substitute teachers, especially those who work consistently in the district, are invaluable to student learning.”

‘Feel the stress’

At the same time when there are fewer substitute teachers than ever before, there is more demand for them than ever before.

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, said there’s a mix of reasons for both of those.

Fewer substitutes are feeling comfortable in the classroom, she believes, especially in states without a K-12 mask mandate, like Utah, where that is banned. Subs tend to be older, including retired teachers, and may not want to risk exposure to COVID-19, even with a vaccine.

That’s the case with Deborah Gatrell’s mom. Gatrell is a teacher at Hunter High in Granite. Her mom was subbing in Davis County but stopped because of her concerns.

“It’s a lot to ask these people to put themselves at risk,” Gatrell said, “when the state isn’t willing to protect them and they don’t make much money.”

(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 in 2020. Legge is now retired from subbing.

Valenzuela, too, points to a nationwide staffing issue where employees are seeking fair compensation for their work. She believes people might not be attracted to substitute teaching because the wages are quite low, comparatively, also using Amazon as an example.

Utah’s sub pay ranks seventh worst in the nation, according to the publication Business Insider. A Kelly Education study additionally found that the average hourly rate for substitutes here is $10.72, compared to an average of $14.06 in the other 30 states in which the company contracts.

That average is 48% higher than the minimum wage of $7.25. But it needs to be closer to 70%, the report said, to “attract and retain quality substitute educators.” That would require a raise of about $5 an hour.

The bonuses will help, Valenzuela said, but they’re likely not enough. As far as more teachers needing subs, Valenzuela said that’s also complicated.

More teachers are leaving the profession, for one thing, increasing the need for long-term substitutes until those positions can be permanently filled. That takes those subs out of the daily rotation.

Educators, too, she said are burnt out from last year — the first full year of pandemic teaching. That involved trying to simultaneously teach online and in-person in Utah, as well as oscillating back and forth with closures due to COVID outbreaks.

Many teachers, Valenzuela said, tried not to take time off last year to help give their students some consistency. This year, it’s catching up to them, with mental health concerns and exhaustion — in addition to physical illnesses, including the virus.

Riesgraf noted: “They need time for self care, too. They need to take that time. We want them to take that time.”

Horsley said teachers are also working with some students who haven’t been in the classroom for a while, with families opting for online school last year. That’s led to challenges with behavior that are “off the charts,” especially with younger kids, like second graders, who have never been in a classroom for seven hours a day before now.

Carter Woolf, a science teacher in Granite School District, said it’s taking its toll.

“The longer it takes to address the sub shortage, the more teachers are going to feel the stress of yet another thing being added to our already full plates,” he said.

He worries, too, that the incentives won’t be enough. He said teaching is a draining job, and the bonuses don’t seem like enough extra pay to make a difference.

Falling rates

In a typical year, most Utah schools already would not be able to find a sub for a class about 5% to 7% of the time they needed one.

Last year, the fill rates for substitute slots in the state hovered around 87%, meaning they were unfilled 13% of the time.

Valenzuela said this year, it’s dropped again, roughly another 10%, to around 77%. For some schools and depending on the time, it’s worse. The problem is also most acute among the biggest districts along the Wasatch Front.

Davis School District reported it is at a 75% average fill rate, down from 95% prior to COVID-19. Jordan is on the higher end at 80%, down from 90% just last year.

And on its worst week this fall, Granite was at 62% when it needed 518 subs at the end of September and couldn’t fill 194 of those positions, having to turn to other employees in the district to cover.

“We just have more needs than ever before,” Horsley said.

All districts in the state are encouraging individuals who might have the time and flexibility to try substitute teaching — applying by each individual district’s website. They’re also encouraging people to tell them what it might take to get them interested.

School officials say they’re willing to try different things, like bonuses, to get the numbers back to a more manageable level.