5 ways to address the shortage of subs in special ed

Special education teachers, including subs, must meet certain state-set qualification standards, making planning for classroom coverage during COVID particularly challenging.
By: | December 10, 2020
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“Our substitute pool is not nearly as eager to be back in the classroom as they would be under normal circumstances,” shares Valerie Suessmith, chief human resources officer at Henry County (Ga.) Schools. “We’re struggling like everybody else is. Substitutes can turn down jobs. We’re seeing a lot of that.”

The district had a pool of well-trained substitutes before the pandemic. “All of a sudden, that pool dried up,” she says. “We had to replenish it.”

Keep in mind that the IDEA and ESSA contain provisions that require special education teachers to meet qualification standards set by the state, and this includes substitute teachers. Placing in special education classrooms uncertified substitute teachers who are not on the path to certification may lead to an IDEA violation.

With that consideration, learn below how Henry County (Ga.) Schools responded to a shortage of substitute teachers, and consider whether some of these approaches might work in your district.

1. Increase the number of permanent substitutes.

In Henry County, some substitutes show up every day to a particular school building and are sent to fill any vacancies that arise in that building that day. This year, the HR department received permission to increase the number of permanent substitutes in the district.

“We know they’re committed,” Suessmith says of the permanent substitutes. “They’re not day-to-day substitutes, [called] in at the last minute. That’s helped tremendously with filling vacancies and absences.”

2. Employ retired special ed teachers.

Another way the district has found substitute teachers for special education classes is to bring back retired special education teachers as substitutes, says Amy Spicer, human resource services coordinator. “They enjoy coming back and working two to three weeks at a time, day-to-day.”

3. Work with a recruiter.

If a school in the Henry County district has an immediate or particular need for a substitute, Spicer get notified. She might then contact the district’s recruiter for assistance in fulfilling the specific need.

4. Replenish the pool.

Suessmith’s new approach to the district’s dwindling pool of existing substitute teachers is to train new people, Spicer says. That way, they know coming in what challenges they’ll face in light of the pandemic. “If you’re signing on now to be a substitute, you know what it will look like,” she adds.

5. Work on teacher retention.

Sometimes, a diminished substitute pool is reflective of a teacher attendance problem, Suessmith says. Pre-pandemic, the district’s human resource services department focused on teacher retention and attendance, so a teacher was in front of students every day. “You wouldn’t need a robust substitute pool if you had that attendance,” she says. “We have to work … on our side so we’re not dependent on the substitute pool.”


Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.