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Shortage of substitutes infects Valley schools

.Substitute teacher Judy Vystrcil of Southington teaches a 3rd grade class at LaBrae Intermediate School. ... Staff photo by R. Michael Semple

The Youngstown City School District has seen its need for substitute teachers double from what it required before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, our school buildings averaged one to two substitute teachers per day,” CEO Justin Jennings noted. “We now are averaging three to four substitutes per day.”

In addition to having an increased need, Jennings said it’s harder to find substitutes.

“There’s a major need for substitutes, not only in Youngstown, but in districts across the region, the state, and, really the country,” Jennings said. “A lot of our substitutes traditionally have been older, and they may not want to expose themselves to the virus.”

Youngstown is not alone in having a near-critical need for substitute teachers. School districts — large and small — have been stretching the skills and patience of of their regular employees. They are requiring some staff to cover not only their jobs, but the jobs of other employees because of high absenteeism.

Jennings recalled having 10 teachers absent one week from one of the district’s high schools and another nine teachers absent from a middle school. The district now has 68 substitutes available for its use.

When there are not enough substitutes, and other teachers are assigned to cover classes of absent colleagues, they use what normally is prep time to cover the classrooms.

“That’s not the ideal situation,” Jennings noted. “We want our teachers to have time to prepare for their own classes.”

The Youngstown school district has attempted to attract substitutes by having the highest salaries of any school district in Mahoning County. It pays $120 per day for substitutes.

“The higher pay may be an incentive, but it does not address all the concerns that potential substitutes may have,” Jennings said.

The district has between 35 and 40 permanent building substitutes.

Part of the difficulty in finding and keeping substitute teachers is the fact that every school district in the Mahoning Valley is pulling from the same pool of available substitutes, Jennings said.

“And restaurants and other companies have increased their hourly salaries, so people have more choices of where they want to work,” he added.

Jennings admits it may be more difficult for Youngstown to attract substitutes because of what he believes is false narrative that there are more discipline problems in the urban school district, compared to the suburbs.

The district works with the organization called Rachel Wixey and Associates to screen and obtain its substitutes.

WHERE TO GO

Eight districts — Austintown, Boardman, Campbell, Canfield, Educational Service Center of Eastern Ohio, Mahoning County Career and Technical Center, Poland and Struthers — obtain their substitute teachers from the Educational Service Center of Eastern Ohio Substitute Management Consortium.

The ESCEO has hosted multiple recruiting events for substitutes at its Canfield headquarters, as well as in each of the school districts it represents, according to Sandy Furano, director of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center.

“Substitutes working in a consortium district earn $100 per day,” according to Furano. “Before the pandemic, they were earning $80 per day.”

ESCEO has about 300 active substitute teachers within its system.

Furano adds, however, that the number of available substitutes on any given day may be lower depending on the number of absences and their availability.

FINDING ENOUGH

Austintown Superintendent David Cappuzzello said the current school year has been the best of the last three years, as far as the district being able to find enough substitute teachers to fill the positions on a regular basis.

“There have been needs for both teachers and bus drivers,” Cappuzzello said. “It has been tough because we experienced the combination of people with regular flu symptoms, COVID concerns and quarantines.”

Cappuzzello said the first year of the pandemic was difficult because no one knew what to expect.

Because of its experience in the prior year, the district in the 2020-21 school year hired eight building substitutes to be available when and where needed.

“It has helped, but not a lot,” Cappuzzello said. “We still need to call for subs, but having these people available made it easier.”

Cappuzzello, too, emphasized the majority of school districts in Mahoning County are getting their substitutes from the same group of available people.

“We have six permanent building substitutes this year,” he said. “We reduced the number because we thought, with the combination of the vaccines and masks, we would be through the pandemic a little more.”

Substitutes in Austintown schools are paid $100 per day.

When the district’s regular teachers must cover for another teacher’s class, that teacher is paid $20 per class.

Cappuzzello believes the problem schools are having with finding substitutes goes beyond the pandemic.

“Look at the number of teachers that are graduating from colleges with degrees in education,” he said. “The numbers are decreasing.”

EXACERBATED

Boardman Schools Superintendent Timothy Saxton said the district was experiencing challenges of getting substitute teachers before the pandemic.

“COVID exacerbated most of our challenges,” he said. “We have been seeing fewer younger prospective teachers working as substitutes. We were seeing more people who retired, but, due to COVID, some pulled out because they are wary of coming into school buildings with hundreds of students.”

Similar to Austintown, Saxton hired eight “supersubs” who come into the district every school day for work assignments.

“We did not have these positions prior to COVID,” Saxton said. “We found it necessary to hire supersubs to ensure we would have people to fill positions.”

The district reduced the number of these supersubs to five this year, and it’s expected the numbers will continue to decline as the nation gains greater control over the virus spread. “With the increase of people being vaccinated and mask wearing, we are seeing few teachers being quarantined and missing school days,” Saxton said.

CONFLICTING STATS

While some districts are having problems attracting substitutes, the Ohio Department of Education notes the state has more people with substitute teaching licenses this year than it has had in the last five years.

In the 2020-21 school year, there were 36,599 people with substitute teaching licenses in Ohio. There were 26,804 people with the licenses in the 2015-2016 school year.

The number of people with valid substitute teaching licenses does not reflect the number of teachers available to substitute, according to Mandy Minick, a spokeswoman with the ODE.

“Some teachers who have a valid teaching license might have decided not to teach full-time, but rather act as a substitute from time to time,” she said.

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said the organization’s local affiliates have been reporting a problem getting substitute teachers.

“While some of this is definitely related to the pandemic, there has been a growing problem in getting substitutes and, overall, new teachers coming into the field for more than a decade,” DiMauro said. “Overall, there has been a decline in people going into education as a career choice.”

The lower number of people entering education is, in part, fueled by economics, he continued.

“People are looking at teaching careers and are deciding they are not paying enough,” DiMauro said. “Other reasons include the greater use of standardized testing and some teachers believe they are not being supported enough.”

FIXING IT

Ohio is attempting to address the substitute teaching shortage with the recently passed Senate Bill 1, which grants the ODE authority to issue one-year temporary non-bachelor degree substitute teacher licenses to education students who have not earned their degrees and passed the licensing tests.

Jennings, Youngstown’s CEO, expressed concern about the passage of SB1. “We will see more student teachers being used as substitutes,” Jennings said. “These young people are required to have so many hours of student teaching. They can only work so many hours as substitutes.”

In spite of these misgivings, Jennings authorized the district for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year to employ substitute teachers who do not hold post-secondary degrees, as is otherwise required by state law.

The OEA did not object to the the passage of SB 1.

“We are in an emergency situation and this is something that may be needed to get school districts through this period,” DiMauro said. “However, it is not a good ideal to water down standards. This is not a long-term solution. It is a Band-Aid.”

According to a report in the Business Insider, the substitute and teacher shortage is a problem being faced by districts across the U.S. The magazine reports that educators across the country have been reevaluating their career choices.

A survey from May found 32 percent of teachers considered leaving the profession because of the pandemic. Special education teacher numbers are also down.

rsmith@tribtoday.com

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