SEARCHING FOR SUBS: Schools struggle to fill teacher absences

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HANCOCK COUNTY — When a second-grade class at Weston Elementary School in Greenfield was without its teacher on Wednesday, Cindy Jones answered the call to fill in.

The retired Greenfield-Central instructional assistant has been substitute-teaching for the school corporation for the past several years.

“Sometimes it can be an entire maternity leave, or it can be a sick leave; just whenever they need me and whatever they need,” she said.

Substitute teacher Cindy Jones is a rare commodity in the schools: a sub who is available to pitch in “whenever they need me and whatever they need.” (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

People like Jones are rare, school officials throughout Hancock County say, as they continue struggling to find enough substitute teachers. Some school corporations have increased pay for subs in an attempt to resolve the issue, and others are considering the same.

“We are definitely in need of substitute teachers, there’s no question,” said Scott Kern, human resources director for Greenfield-Central.

The impact varies, he continued, adding there have been times in which 15 to 25 substitute openings have gone unfilled district-wide, although it hasn’t been that dire lately.

When a sub can’t be secured for a class, the responsibility has to be covered by other employees like instructional assistants and principals, Kern said.

“It’s definitely a problem for us,” he said.

Kern said the issue started around the time the pandemic did.

“If we go back before COVID, we could fill all of our absences with qualified substitute teachers,” he said, adding those who otherwise would be drawn to substitute teaching may be feeling less so due to concerns over exposure to the virus.

Greenfield-Central officials are considering increasing pay for subs, which is currently about $100 a day, to ensure the corporation is competitive with surrounding ones.

“Everybody’s competing for the same pool of people,” Kern said.

The increase would need to be reflected in the school corporation’s employee handbook. Changes to that are typically introduced to the school board in December and considered for approval at the beginning of the upcoming calendar year.

“We’re hopeful the board will agree to let us do that,” Kern said.

He’s grateful to the Hancock County Ministerial Association, whose members have been subbing for the school corporation.

“Every little bit helps, and we’re appreciative of that,” he said. “It’s an important position for us. We don’t take that lightly. We need good people to continue instruction in the classroom with our students when teachers have to be out due to illness or whatever the case may be.”

Jones is driven to be a substitute teacher by the same thing that drove her as an instructional assistant.

“When you walk into a classroom, and you see all those little faces, and the desperate need to understand things, and you’re working with somebody and you see that light bulb go off, that’s the most rewarding thing ever,” she said.

She agreed with Kern that the pandemic likely has a lot to do with people not wanting to participate in substitute teaching lately.

They may also not be interested, she added, because it can be challenging going from grade to grade.

“It’s difficult to walk into a class you’ve never been into before and actually get the children to listen to you,” Jones said. “You just have to stick in there, just do it.”

Debra Brown subbed often for Greenfield-Central for a decade up until recently due to requirements for masks, which exacerbate lingering issues from her own bout with COVID-19.

“Many weeks I would sub five days a week,” said Brown, a former teacher’s aide. “I love the interaction with the students.”

The drop in interest in substitute teaching may be because of its intermittence and lack of insurance, she said.

“So if you’re a single mom, you mostly will need that income year-round,” Brown added.

Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation has been experiencing difficulties similar to Greenfield-Central’s.

“It’s been an incredible challenge for us to meet the needs of staff who need to take time off and to fill in for them,” said Jack Parker, Mt. Vernon superintendent. “It’s something that’s been increasingly more difficult each year. And then when the pandemic hit, it certainly took a bigger chunk out of our ability to fill in vacancies for substitutes when people needed to be out.”

As at Greenfield-Central, Mt. Vernon employees have to be pulled away from their own jobs to support when substitutes can’t be secured.

“It just puts a strain on everybody,” Parker said. “And of course we always do that — we always pitch in and help other people.”

The school corporation recently increased substitute teacher pay from $85 to $105 a day. Subs also get a free lunch.

“It seems that there are fewer people wanting to enter the workforce; we just need to motivate more,” Parker said. “And we recognize that we are now competing with the entire workforce for these types of jobs.”

The raise has already started to pay off, he continued, adding that the school corporation’s substitute teacher fill rate has doubled from 30% to over 60%.

“And hopefully we continue to grow,” Parker said. “You almost never have 100% fill rate, even in the best of times. I’ve never had it and I’ve been an administrator for 25 years. But you get 80, 90% fill rate, you really do, and I think we’re going to get there.”

Officials with Southern Hancock schools are also in desperate need of substitutes. In an effort to attract more interest, they’ve raised their pay from $85 a day to $95 when substituting for a certified teacher.

“We’re competing with places like Amazon and Walmart for workers who can make a good salary, so we knew we needed to raise the pay,” said Wes Anderson, director of communications for the district.

Officials are so strapped for substitutes, administrative staff have had to step in to help out with people like Anderson, assistant principals, the athletic directors and other front-office workers taking over classrooms when needed.

“We don’t care if someone only wants to substitute a day, or at a specific school, whatever anyone can do, we’d really appreciate it if community members would step up and help us out,” Anderson said.

He said the vast majority of teachers leave great lesson plans, making substitute teaching roles at SH schools a little easier.

While the district is not to the point it might have to close a school, Anderson said, administrators would really like to find a few subs they can rely on particularly with the winter months coming. They’re also looking for teacher assistants and custodians.

The issue is just as big at Hancock County’s smallest school corporation too.

“On rough days, when we can’t find as many substitutes as we need, we (have) to find a way to make it work with people we have in the building,” said George Philhower, superintendent of Eastern Hancock schools.

Other parts of the school corporation face the same challenge, he added, including food service and bus drivers.

“Finding good employees is becoming more difficult all the time,” Philhower said.

Schools have been experiencing the sub crunch for a number of years, he continued.

“Unfortunately the situation with COVID maybe makes that a little bit worse,” he said.

Over the next month or so, the school corporation will contemplate the same measure others in the county have.

“It is a time of year where we’re discussing increasing pay for substitutes, and we’re definitely considering that,” Philhower said.

LEARN MORE

Interested in substitute teaching in Hancock County? Here’s how to get started:

Greenfield-Central: gcsc.k12.in.us/?page_id=158

Southern Hancock: newpal.k12.in.us, look under the employment tab then follow the substitute teacher links

Eastern Hancock: Call the administration office at 317-936-5444

Mt. Vernon: mvcsc.k12.in.us/employment/6

 

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