School districts struggle to overcome substitute shortage

By Ryan Fitzmaurice

Doug Hazen, Superintendent for Big Horn County School District No. 2, spent a morning last week as a cafeteria worker, serving lunch to students as they walked by in line.

Another day last week, he taught fifth-grade math.

One might think, having the top job in the district, his days in front of a classroom – or wearing a hair net – had come to an end. But everyone is filling in everywhere right now.

Only weeks into the new school year, the daily task of finding enough substitutes has grown desperate. Substitute teachers, cooks, janitors, bus drivers and paraprofessionals have all been sparse. 

“At this point, this issue would close schools before too many COVID-19 absences would close schools,” Hazen told the Lovell Chamber of Commerce during their luncheon Monday.  

Five miles away, Tim Winland, principal of Rocky Mountain Middle/High School, said the situation is just as severe in Big Horn School District No. 1.

“Paraprofessionals are covering classes, teachers are covering classes during their prep time. Even administrators are watching classes,” Winland said. “It’s reaching a critical mass right now. We’re very concerned. If we don’t get
the applicants we need, we may be eliminating activities and field trips.”

When asked about Hazen’s statement that
substitute teacher shortages would close down schools before COVID-19 would, Winland’s answer was immediate.

“I would agree with that statement,” Winland said.

Lovell Middle School Principal William Hiser said out of the first 14 days of school, 10 of those days have required building staff to cover the absences of other staff. 

Fridays can be the most difficult, school administrators said, with sports and other activities pulling students, coaches and parents away from school buildings. That combined with personal leave and, for some buildings, absences due to COVID-19 exacerbates an already tenuous situation. 

One Friday, Hiser said, the middle school had six staff missing and could only find two substitutes to cover. The school secretary spent the morning begging two substitutes who originally said no to come in.

“It’s been a challenge every day,” Hiser said. 

Scott O’Tremba, principal for Lovell Elementary School, said with some creative thinking and teamwork, the school has found a way to get through each day. 

“We’re making it work,” O’Tremba said. “By the skin of our teeth.” 

The story repeats itself in every north Big Horn County school building. Burlington High School Principal Autumn Tempany said that both she and Steve Foley, the building’s assistant principal, have covered classed when subs couldn’t be found.

“We do the subbing ourselves. There are times when we have teachers skip their prep periods in order to cover other teachers’ classes when we can’t get subs. The same is true for custodians and cooks; the other custodians will divvy up the absent custodian’s workload to cover for that absent person,” Tempany said.  “We have an online program that contacts all the subs on our district’s subbing list once an absence is input into the system. However, we are so short on subs that our office staff often end up individually calling subs on the list to try to fill the needed openings.”

Aryn Tippets, Executive Assistant for District No. 2, said her district currently has 25-30 substitutes, give or take, across all positions, with half of that number, about 15, certified to teach in classrooms. 

For Big Horn No. 1, the pool is only slightly deeper, according to executive assistant Marianne Grant. The district has between 15 and 20 certified subs, and a decent number of, about 15, paraprofessional subs. 

As for bus substitutes, Grant didn’t have a number.

“The district is in terrible need of bus subs,” Grant said.

Winland said the district is down four bus drivers from last year. 

Both  Grant and Tippetts said the reason for the limited pool available can’t be narrowed down into any sole reason. COVID-19 has only had a minimal impact on the list, and the demographics of who is available hasn’t changed. Grant said, for No. 1, the biggest loss has been among younger subs, as they were working on becoming a full-time teacher and had found a position. 

Hazen said it’s not that applicants for the positions have changed either, but it often takes time for a potential sub to be approved for a position. Every applicant needs to complete a background test and be fingerprinted. If an applicant has an associates degree or higher, it’s a short process
after that’s completed, but if an applicant doesn’t, several more hours of classroom observation and professional development are needed. 

“We’re looking into streamlining the background requirement, possibly paying for the background requirements ourselves,” Hazen said during the district No. 2’s  September 13 regular board meeting. “But, everything takes time.
We’re not going to realize those gains immediately, and right now, it’s about getting through the next few weeks.”

While the supply of substitute teachers stagnates or dwindles, the environment within the schools has rarely been so combustible.

Winland said Rocky Middle/High School has not yet seen any serious impacts from COVID-19, but said that if the virus ever does make its presence among the staff, the levees could very well break. 

“Currently, that hasn’t been a factor, but that could have a huge impact, be a huge factor for us,” Winland said. “Concerning shortage situations with COVID-19, two to three to four staff could be gone just like that. I don’t know what we would do. That keeps us up at night.”

COVID-19 has already reared its head for District No. 2. Last week, three staff members in the district tested positive and were out due to the virus, Hazen said. 

“The subs that we have, it’s slim and we’re plucking them for three buildings,” Hazen said. “When we have more than three staff out with symptoms, and then you have a situation where staff are taking personal leave, and we have other illnesses, it’s compounding matters.”

The district is heavily considering limiting when a teacher can take an absence, Hazen said. 

“It’s kind of like how hospitals aren’t giving any unnecessary surgeries right now,” Hazen said on Sept. 13. “If it’s unnecessary, we can’t guarantee that we can have you go because we can’t function as a district.”

That’s already a process happening in Rocky Middle/High School, Winland said. The school has been screening absences for what is necessary and unnecessary more than he ever remembers doing. 

“We all want to be optimistic and have a positive outlook on things,” Winland said. “But the shortages are real right now.”

For those willing to help, it couldn’t come at a more welcomed time, according to Tippetts.  

“We’re always looking for people to help us out and substitute,” Tippets said. “It’s a great way
to make a difference for our kids.”