Amid the omicron surge, Utah schools are asking businesses for substitute teachers

Schools are being creative to fill pandemic gaps in classrooms, but say they need outside help.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Staffing shortages powered by the omicron variant of COVID-19 have left Utah schools scrambling for substitute teachers. A new partnership between the Salt Lake Chamber and the Salt Lake City and Granite school districts encourages employers to free up their staff to work as substitutes.

Remember ditching class? Now the Salt Lake Chamber wants you to ditch your job duties instead and go back.

In partnership with the Chamber, Salt Lake City and Granite school districts are asking business owners to let their workers step in as substitute teachers, amid a staffing crisis powered by the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Employers should allow their interested workers to help out because they understand that education is “the number one input into a healthy economy,” said Derek Miller, president of the Salt Lake Chamber. “If we don’t have an educated workforce, we will all suffer.”

In the Salt Lake City School District, from the beginning of the school year to winter break, 65% to 75% of teacher requests for a substitute were filled, according to Logan Hall, its director of Human Resources.

But the fill rate has fallen to about 56% since schools reopened this month, Hall told the school board last week. ”People are not falling out of the sky. With an unprecedentedly low unemployment rate, it’s very difficult to find people seeking work,” Hall said.

The shortage of subs is also being felt in Granite School District, officials said. Granite reported a 25% fill rate before the break, though it said that number has climbed to 43% since Jan. 3.

Alpine School District also can’t find enough subs, especially in elementary schools, Superintendent Shane Farnsworth said in an emergency school board meeting Thursday. Fill rates in junior highs and high schools are above 80%, but the rate at elementary schools in the district are below 50%.

[Have pandemic shortages spurred you to work as a substitute? Take our survey below. ]

One secondary school in Alpine recently resorted to putting all of its kids in a gymnasium and playing movies. In Salt Lake City, classes are being split up with students sent to other teachers, and librarians, district employees, counselors and principals are being tapped to fill in.

“It really is all hands on deck,” Hall told the Salt Lake City board. “We’re not letting a room full of 7-year-olds sit in a classroom by themselves.”

Subbing ‘is like full-on cardio’

Miller said he recognizes that many employers are facing the same staffing shortages that schools are. But for some businesses, he said, the advent of remote work can allow flexibility for employees to work as substitute teachers.

”We just want [businesses] to be able to figure out what makes sense for them and what makes sense for their employees,” Miller said. “Whether that’s one day a month or one day a week, figure it out, because the schools need all the help they can get.”

More than 50 businesses attended a webinar earlier this month where Hall and others outlined the districts’ need for help, and more have been invited to participate through the Chamber’s newsletter.

“It’s a great thing for us to say, ‘We don’t need you to come and be a full-time substitute. We need help Fridays. Would you please allow your employees to substitute two Fridays a month?’” Hall said, describing the webinar outreach to Salt Lake City school board members.

When working Utahns return to classrooms as subs, students “have examples of what it looks like to be successful as a business person in the community,” Hall said. Kids can also make connections to remember as they look for internships in the future, he said.

And adults will be shown a new perspective on how difficult it is to be a teacher, Miller said. “You can’t fade out or start daydreaming. If you did, you’d end up in chaos,” Miller said. “... To actually get it in the classroom, provides a whole new level of respect.”

Alpine board member Julie King, who recently subbed at an elementary school, said, “It is a lot of work. … It is like full-on cardio. I don’t know how our teachers do it every day. There are 1,000 things happening in a timeframe.”

One reason for the disparity in fill rates in the Alpine district is because secondary school subs usually have an assignment prepped for them, King said. Subs in elementary schools spend the entire day with one class.

Alpine has given schools additional funding to hire more substitutes, but turnover and labor shortages in the district’s human resources department are causing delays in background checks for new employees, Farnsworth said.

Unlike restaurants left shorthanded, “we can’t close up shop to only serve dinner,” he said. “We need to stay open.”

Staffing shortages extend beyond the classroom in Salt Lake City, too, Hall said. He asked the Chamber for volunteers who can take a longer lunch break to serve lunch to students, and said the district also needs custodial workers and bus drivers.

‘We’re burning out our teachers’

Besides passing a background check, substitute teacher candidates need only to have graduated high school, after a recent update to the Utah State Board of Education’s requirements, Hall said.

Substitutes can work as much or as little as they want, and can sign up on Granite and Salt Lake City’s websites. Updates to Salt Lake City’s online application system make it possible to apply in under seven minutes, Hall said.

Salt Lake City schools have removed a former 15-day monthly working limit for substitutes. Since Jan. 3, the district has received 38 applications, and Hall said he anticipates the partnership with the chamber will bring in more.

It takes about two weeks to process an application and run the background check before an applicant can get into a classroom, Hall said.

The district’s daily pay rates for substitutes have been increased by $30 over the past two years, said Alan Kearsley, its business administrator. High school graduates earn $105 per day, subs with bachelor’s degrees earn $115, licensed teachers earn $125 and retired teachers earn $140. In Granite, substitutes can earn $50 bonuses for every five completed jobs they work, spokesperson Ben Horsely said.

[Read more: Utah school districts are offering extra pay to attract substitute teachers. Will it work?]

Hall said in an interview that the increased salary has made Salt Lake City competitive with other school districts. But Salt Lake City’s superintendent, Timothy Gadson, noted during the school board meeting that one sub told him she could only afford to work three times a week; she loses money on child care costs if she works more.

Amber Bonner, a school board member in Alpine, also has been working as a substitute to help fill the gaps. She said she’s heard from teachers who would rather quit at the end of the year than go through another year like this one.

“We’re burning out our teachers,” Bonner said Thursday during the district’s board meeting. “Right now, a lot of our teachers are not getting prep time. They’re not getting a lunch. They can’t go to the bathroom during the day because they’re covering recess duty or another teacher’s class.”

Aides who were hired to provide additional tutoring to help students catch up after shutdowns last year can’t assist teachers because they are being asked to cover classrooms, she said. Bonner asked: At what point have we reached a staffing crisis where learning is not really occurring anymore?

“If my kid can learn something from [online system] Canvas at home,” she said, “I’d rather have them do that than watching a movie in the auditorium.”