A sub-optimal situation: The need for more teachers

Districts large and small have been working to bolster their pool of substitutes in preparation for expected teacher shortages during the coronavirus pandemic. Will it be enough?
By: | August 19, 2020
Martin Barraud/Getty Images

They are the “cadre of the willing,” the unsung heroes in every district.

Substitute teachers are so valued by one school system that they are referred to as “guest teachers.”

From Los Angeles to Henry County, Ga., the need for quality subs this year is critical, with COVID-19 still lurking throughout communities. Facing the already steep challenge of getting students back safely, many district leaders spent the summer coping with the potential for instructional shortages this fall.

Understanding that remote learning is not a permanent solution and that blanket policy changes from government aren’t forthcoming, school administrators constructed plans—some complex, some more streamlined—to ensure classroom coverage.

Bring on the subs.

As long as the pandemic ebbs and flows, there will be full-time teacher absences. And that will mean a heavy lean on those pinch-hitters and relievers.

“They’re so valuable to the district,” says Micky Savage, director of human resources and labor relations for Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan. “People get sick. People need to take a leave of absence. When that happens, we have to have someone with a passion for teaching and educating students that can step in.”

More from DA

5 ways to build and retain a substitute teacher pool

Deputy superintendent offers 4 strategies to hiring substitutes

Districts such as Grand Rapids (with 11,000 students) all the way up to Chesterfield County Public Schools in Virginia (60,000 students) note the importance of those being called on to replace those on the front lines.

“All systems in the next 12 to 24 months will be judged on their ability to pivot between the face-to-face and virtual learning space,” says Thomas Taylor, deputy superintendent of schools in Chesterfield. “The quality of your programs, the quality of your educational experience, is all going to hinge on your ability to be flexible and pivot from one learning experience to the other. If substitutes are not a critical part of that strategy, you’re missing the boat.”

How vital are subs? Kelly Education president Nicola Soares says her staffing agency handles approximately 80,000 assignments per day in 41 states. More than 20% of those are for subs alone, and the number has grown since the pandemic began.

“The last four or five years, the increase of the full-time teacher vacancy openings that we were asked to service was increasing from 25% to 30%,” Soares says. “I think we will see an increased rate of attrition of full-time teachers. What has become a temporary solution in terms of substitute teachers … has now become a permanent solution.”

Budget and staffing challenges

Tight budgets, traditionally low wages for subs, and teacher shortages have put district leaders in a challenging position, especially during a pandemic. Valerie Suessmith, chief human resources officer for Henry County Schools south of Atlanta, notes staffing is strong but says curriculum areas such as science and math and especially special education could be “problematic because it takes a specialized skill.”

Taylor at Chesterfield Schools has felt the pinch of substitute shortages over the past few months. In August, he says his pool of subs should have been 1,000 but was hovering around 700. The lofty sweet spot many districts reach for is essentially half of the number of teachers they have—so his district should have a pool of 2,500 subs.

“I think that’s a luxury. I’ve never worked in a system that has had even remotely close to that,” he says.


Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers from May 2019 for short-term substitute teachers nationwide.

Total number of short-term substitutes employed nationwide: 514,170

Mean hourly wage: $15.56/hour (median wage is $13.79/hour)

Mean annual wage $32,360


States with highest number of short-term substitutes

  1. California: 103,210
  2. Texas: 85,390
  3. New York: 32,440
  4. Virginia: 25,350
  5. Illinois: 23,340

Areas with the most short-term substitutes

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 30,640
  2. New York-Newark-Jersey City,NY-NJ 30,340
  3. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 19,020
  4. Washington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV, 18,540
  5. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 17,120
  6. Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, IL 16,910
  7. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 15,400
  8. San Francisco-Hayward-Oakland, CA 12,860
  9. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 8,580
  10. San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 7,530

Metro areas with the highest concentration of substitute per location (per 1,000 jobs)

  1. Merced, CA 25.48
  2. Visalia-Porterville, CA 20.24
  3. Great Falls, MT 18.28
  4. Ogden-Clearfield, UT 17.13
  5. Stockton-Lodi, CA 15.42

States with the highest concentration of subs per location (per 1,000 jobs)

  1. Montana 10.14
  2. Wyoming 9.04
  3. West Virginia 7.70
  4. Idaho 7.66
  5. Kansas 7.39


States with highest hourly wage rates for short-term substitutes

  1. Hawaii $23.17
  2. Oregon $21.50
  3. California $20.03
  4. Massachusetts $19.90
  5. New York $19.83

States with highest hourly wage rates for short-term substitutes

  1. Salisbury, MD-DE $28.24
  2. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $25.90
  3. Salinas, CA $23.94
  4. Santa Rose, CA $22.71
  5. Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD $22.42

Areas with some of the lowest hourly wage rates for short-term substitutes:

  1. Daphne-Fairhope-Foley, AL $8.60
  2. East Georgia suburbs: $9.25
  3. Ogden-Clearfield, UT $9.94
  4. East Central Montana: $10.65
  5. Texas border: $10.72
  6. Southeast Coastal North Carolina $10.79

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2019 data. Note: Data was not available for Colorado and parts of some other states.

Taylor’s situation isn’t unique. Similar-sized districts such as Wichita Public Schools, which have a stable pool of subs now, could be left scrambling during certain periods—holidays and flu season—and may be forced to consider longer-term measures such as a nine-week remote period from December into January.

“I don’t care where we are, if we have 200 to 300 people out, on top of other people that need support for other things over time, I just don’t know if we’re going to be able to pull it off,” says Wichita superintendent Alicia Thompson. “What happens if a nurse contracts this? What happens if clerical folks need to come out, or the principal, or the whole administrative team? What happens if there are no leaders in the building? Those are the spaces where we feel like we’re vulnerable, per se.”

Such concerns are real for many districts, says Nathan Burroughs, senior research associate at Michigan State University, who has done several studies on substitute teacher shortages—including one survey of district leaders in his state that showed 86% reporting a decline in supply of subs over a five-year period. In fact, 64% said their districts are short on subs several times per week.

“The substitute teacher problem is the first area where you’re seeing an emerging crisis in staffing,” says Burroughs, who also notes a lack of data and research to track substitute staffing and wages. “I’ve got real questions about a small- and medium-sized district being able to address this because as the shortage becomes more severe, the competition between neighboring districts becomes that much more intense. The least resourced districts who have the most need may lose out.”

Taylor is worried about a specific cohort of his substitute teachers in Chesterfield.

“If there’s a disproportion representation anywhere in that pool, it is of retired persons, and of course, they’re in the [COVID] risk category,” he says. “That is of grave concern to us because should we return to a face-to-face environment, we want to put our employees in a place where they are safest. For many of our substitutes, they may look at us and say, it’s just not worth it.”

Though school districts often turn to retirees to fill substitute gaps, they are becoming less of the makeup of those available at staffing agencies like Kelly.

“People tend to think that the majority of our talent pool is retirees from the profession, but that’s not the case,” says Soares. “Less than 10% opt for a substitute teacher position post-retirement. Given the health issues and barriers, we’re probably not going to be recruiting a lot of those folks in the near term.”

Pressing on with plans

Leaders at Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tenn., which relies heavily on retirees in its pool of 1,400 substitutes, recognized they would have to be more aggressive about hiring subs.

“We typically have windows where we open up our sub pool, but we just opened the floodgates, says Yolanda Martin, chief of human resources. We’ve hired 76 new subs since March. And we’re actively recruiting more. We wanted to be very proactive.”

Many school leaders say they have solid strategies for handling substitutes this year, even with myriad issues swirling around them. LA Unified, Henry County and most other districts began by polling their pool of subs to find out if they’re returning.

Districts can go further, by providing professional development opportunities, including virtual instruction, while boosting pay for veteran subs. Some have tabbed specific substitute leaders at every site.

“We’ve got a designated person that will help facilitate this whole process in each school site,” says Martin at Shelby County Schools. “Whether it needs to be: deploy this person from the sub team; facilitate splitting the class; assign technology; … or provide backup lessons and videos, those things are organized and ready to go.”

One of the most important strategies districts is creating larger pools of permanent subs. Burroughs at Michigan State believes that’s a smart strategy moving forward as long as “you’ve got the resources to do it. Because you can offer them some job stability.”

Other solutions may not have the same kind of impact, especially long-term.

“The short-term kinds of fixes of increasing the hourly pay rate, particularly for subs that are meeting the need, it’s not sustainable,” says Soares of Kelly Education. “I think it’s really important that we need to start shifting the conversation and understand and recognize and agree that the workforce model is changing.”

Taylor cautions taking a cavalier approach. When absences happen, don’t be left asking, “Does the responsibility fall on their grade level or department chair, or the assistant principal or principal supervising them? Do we just go without education? None of those are acceptable answers to us.”

Instead, value that pool of subs and stay connected to them, especially in this unique environment.

“We have no baseline data to really forecast [the near future and staffing]. There probably wasn’t data in 1918 with the last pandemic,” Martin says. “A big part of work in education space is recruitment, but it’s more about retention, because you lose at a much higher rate than you gain staff.”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com