After more than three decades of reporting to duty at schools in Minnesota — as a teacher, a principal, and then again as a science teacher — Rick Fletcher decided to retire. But he didn’t stay away for long.
“I’m supposedly retired. But I enjoy it too much,” he said.
For the past six years, he’s worked as a short-term substitute at two schools in the Spring Lake Park Schools district and at one in St. Paul — buildings where he knows the staff and the students. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit this past spring, he says students still stopped by his place to decorate his sidewalk with chalk and to drop off treats. But his sub role was essentially eliminated by the shift to distance learning.
He’d been holding out hope that he might be able to safely return to the classroom this fall. But given the fact that he’s part of an at-risk population, age-wise, he’s thinking he’ll need to stay on the sidelines this fall, no matter how things pan out. “I wanted to keep going for a number of more years. And I see this as a possible end to the subbing experience for me,” he said. “I’m really disappointed in that.”
It’s the sort of decision that substitute teachers across the state — both those employed by districts and those employed by agencies — will be grappling with ahead of the 2020-21 school year. Until the state Department of Education delivers final back-to-school guidance later this month, schools won’t be able to firm up their sub needs.
If some form of in-classroom learning resumes, the need for substitute teachers could spike, especially if teachers who feel unsafe returning to the classroom in the midst of a pandemic end up leaving the profession. If this fall includes a return to full-on distance learning, the need for subs could plummet.
Taking inventory of the sub workforce
Fletcher coordinates his jobs through Teachers on Call, a Bloomington-based substitute teacher provider that partners with 100 districts and charter schools across Minnesota. The agency manages a pool of more than 7,000 substitute teachers.
While roughly a third of those employed by the agency face an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because they’re older adults — including many retired teachers — results from a recent employee survey indicate the agency may end up holding on to the bulk of its workforce.
Al Sowers, vice president of the Teachers on Call, says they had just over 2,000 subs respond to the survey. Of those, 85.7 percent said they plan to return to subbing in the fall. Only 2.8 percent said they won’t be returning this fall.
They also surveyed the districts and charters they partner with. Out of 74 respondents, 35 percent expect that they’ll need more subs than usual heading into the school year, with many of those falling in the long-term sub request category.
“So we don’t see any significant impact, on our workforce, from COVID,” Sowers said. “What we do see is possibly a significant increase in demand for substitute teachers, based on retirements, or teachers not re-entering the classroom.”
If students end up returning to remote learning — whether it be at the outset of the school year, or part-way in — Sowers expects the demand for substitute teachers will, again, drop off almost entirely. “When the schools closed, we pretty much immediately saw a drop — or just a shut off — of all of our short-term substitutes,” he said, recapping the shift to distance learning this past spring when the pandemic first hit.
Beyond the classroom
Some of the agency’s long-term subs made the transition to distance learning with the classes they’d been leading. They, along with all other agency employee, had access to free virtual learning professional development opportunities.
Some short-term subs — those who were willing to help fill other in-demand roles in areas like custodial and food services, as districts ramped up sanitation and meal prep and delivery efforts — were also able to continue working in schools. A number of districts also continued to pay substitutes designated as building subs — those assigned to a particular school site where they report to work every day and step in wherever a sub need arises.
For those dropped from the school year, Sowers says Teachers on Call was able to offer alternative jobs to those interested through its parent company, Kelly Services, and affiliate companies. Some took up stints in call centers, while others picked up tutoring gigs and stepped into distribution center shifts.
With a back-up plan at the ready, in the event of a return to distance learning, Sowers says recruitment efforts are in full swing. Just last week they had 52 people apply to become substitute teachers. They onboarded 44 new subs, adding to the pool of 166 newcomers.
In preliminary talks with the St. Paul Public Schools district — the largest district that the agency partners with, by providing all of its substitute teachers — Sowers says they’re looking to staff more than 30 building sub needs, along with more than 20 long-term sub requests.
In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, all substitute teacher needs are filled by an in-house pool that fluctuates in size between 500 and 570 substitute teachers. During the shift to distance learning this past spring, however, the vast majority of teacher sub jobs dropped off, says Sarah Kriewall, director of employee services for the district.
She also oversees in-house subs who help fill a number of other roles inside school buildings, including paraprofessionals and folks willing to step into child care roles, the front office and the buildings and grounds crew.
She plans to send out a survey to all of her substitutes later this month, once the state releases its final back-to-school guidance. “We’re considering whether or not we need to enhance our recruitment based on the availability of our existing substitute pool and decisions employees make, based on the governor’s decision,” she said.
Jamie Schuster, owner of a smaller Maple Grove-based substitute teacher provider called TeachersASAP, says the demand for substitute teachers in the schools it serves in the metro area has always outpaced supply. Recruitment efforts have gone virtual, but it’s not a new format for the agency.
Schuster is, however, concerned that a potential return to distance learning could jeopardize work opportunities for his employees. “This past spring, we found that our long-term substitutes — because there was a familiarity there, they were more ingratiated into the school process — stayed in place,” he said. “But we found our day-to-day emergency subs, our on-call business, dropped off.”
When that shift happened, he says he took a proactive stance with his employees, advising them to look into applying for unemployment benefits, since they didn’t know how long the school closures would last.
While most school partners made do without substitute hires during distance learning, Schuster hopes they’ll rethink that plan this spring, if they end up returning to distance learning. To finish out the school year, teachers were able to fill in for one another remotely, or otherwise make do. But he sees a role for substitute teachers to play moving forward, even when it comes to supporting teachers during distance learning.
“If you need additional resources — whatever that remote learning looks like, whether it’s grading tests, developing curriculum — we definitely offer and extend our services to be a resource for that,” he said, adding that as schools still figure out their back-to-school format, “we’re a kind of a waiting-in-the-wings resource.”