Gov. Cox asks 22,000 state employees to fill in as schools face staffing crisis

State employees can take administrative leave to fill in at public and private schools, which have been heavily impacted by COVID-19.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Legge, a substitute at Northlake Elementary in the Tooele School District, teaches in this photo from 2020. Gov. Spencer Cox announced on Monday, Jan. 31, 2021, that he will now be allowing state employees to work as substitute teachers to address the staffing shortage in schools with the pandemic.

State employees can now use leave time from their jobs to fill in as substitute teachers while Utah schools continue to face a staffing crisis due to the ongoing pandemic.

The allowance comes through an executive order issued by Gov. Spencer Cox on Monday. He is asking state employees to use up to 30 hours of paid administrative leave to substitute teach, help in the cafeteria or work elsewhere in schools to ensure students can continue to attend in person through the end of the academic year.

“We know that kids learn best in the classroom, so we want to do what we can to help schools stay open,” Cox said in a statement, reiterating his administration’s priority for face-to-face learning. “Our teachers and our children deserve our support during this difficult phase of the pandemic.”

Cox’s order applies to the state’s 22,000 employees. With 30 hours, each employee could volunteer to substitute for about four days.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his 2022 State of the State address in the House Chamber of the Utah Capitol, Jan. 20, 2022.

So far this year, schools have been tapping librarians, counselors and custodial staff to fill in for teachers that have been out sick with the surge in coronavirus cases powered by the omicron variant in Utah.

On Monday, Senate Republicans said during a discussion with reporters that they thought the executive order from Cox was a smart move, within limits.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said Sen. President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

But he didn’t expect lawmakers to start signing up. “I think that would be a little difficult during the session,” Adams said.

Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, though, said it would give individuals “a real sense of what the teachers are doing.”

Last week, the Salt Lake Chamber also announced a partnership with Salt Lake City and Granite school districts to encourage that private employers in all industries allow their workers to fill in at Utah schools.

In Salt Lake City School District, from the beginning of the school year this fall to winter break, 65% to 75% of teacher requests for a substitute were able to be filled by substitutes, 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 district’s school board on Jan. 18.

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.

School districts throughout the state have increased the pay rate for substitute teachers to boost low fill rates. Salt Lake City School District removed its 15-day monthly working limit for substitutes and has increased its daily pay rate 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 as substitutes there.

In Granite, substitutes can earn $50 bonuses for every five completed jobs they work, spokesperson Ben Horsely said.

All employees who choose to work in schools, either with the state order or the chamber’s push, must apply through the school district and pass a background check, according to Utah law. The state will compensate employees who take administrative leave in addition to what they earn while working at school.

The staffing shortage has been complicated by state lawmakers instructing schools to remain in-person by all means possible this year. Going forward, too, schools will not be able to transition to remote learning with a COVID outbreak without first receiving approval from the governor, the Senate president, the speaker of the House and the state superintendent after HB183 received final approval from lawmakers this month.

-Tribune reporter Bryan Schott contributed to this story.