Sheila Opsal only took a few months to retire from the St. Clair School District. The former economics and technology teacher comes back to school one or two days a week when she is not traveling or looking after the grandchildren.
Being a substitute teacher offers the rewards of teaching with the flexibility to enjoy other retirement activities, she says.
But fewer people these days want to work as a substitute like Opsal. And more teachers need to take time off during the pandemic. This combination of increased demand and reduced supply has exacerbated an existing shortage of substitute teachers.
“We’re all in the same boat. We all have to fight, âsaid New Ulm Supt. Jeff Bertrang.
Paraprofessionals and school principals are sometimes called off from their regular duties and teachers give up preparation time to fill in the gaps.
There are now two full-time substitutes at the New Ulm Elementary Schools who go to where they are needed every day. Mankato High Schools are testing a new system where teachers are on call to supervise students in a study room-like setting.
School districts and a company replacing several school districts in the area are asking parents and others to consider becoming subs, emphasizing that the only requirement is a four year college degree in any subject.
The schools have been struggling to find adequate replacement pools for years. And the pandemic has widened the gap.
“We were never overcrowded with substitutes from the start,” said Supt. Mark Westerburg of the Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial Schools.
Districts are equally challenged with finding short-term replacements ready to fill in a day or two at a time, and long-term replacements for teachers on leave, said John Lustig, director of Mankato public schools.
Mankato District usually has a list of at least 115 available substitutes. Now there are just over 100 names, said Lustig.
On average, Lustig estimates around 45 teacher absences every day, 35 of which have to be filled by members of the substitute pool and 10 otherwise.
The districts of Mankato, St. Peter, Neu-Ulm and LCWM are among the districts that employ and manage substitute teachers themselves.
Maple River, St. Clair, and Waseca are among the districts that have contracts with Teachers on Call – a Twin Cities company that recruits and dispatches replacement workers to schools and early intervention centers.
The company is also experiencing more demand than it can serve, Vice President Al Sowers said. Requests have increased by about 10% compared to before the pandemic, he said. In the districts of central southern Minnesota, Teachers on Call can handle between 60% and 90% of requests.
The return of face-to-face learning during an ongoing pandemic has increased demand and reduced supply, according to School Officials Day.
More and more teachers have to take time off because of their own illness, sick children, quarantines and daycare centers that are closed because of quarantine.
And this school year, the students are back in the classroom full-time, and the planned teacher absences for excursions, teacher training, and sporting and extracurricular activities are almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
Fewer people now work as subs.
Some former deputies found other jobs while the schools were in distance learning. Some have been lured into non-teaching jobs that are now better paid as employers in many sectors raise wages to survive in a hot job market.
Herb Kroon is among those who came forward but decided to stay home because they were concerned about exposure to the coronavirus.
“I miss it terribly,” he said. âEspecially the wild middle school students at Dakota Meadows and Prairie Winds. I think of these children every day. “
The North Mankato resident stopped when the pandemic hit and did not feel safe to return even after being vaccinated.
“I know fully vaccinated people who have gotten quite sick from the virus,” he said.
The winter was the height of the replacement shortage even before the pandemic, said Lustig. More and more teachers have been on sick leave with a variety of illnesses in the past. Meanwhile, some of the many retired teachers who are part of the replacement pool have headed south for the winter.
The gap between absenteeism and available replacements makes school principals desperate for solutions.
Several districts sometimes ask teachers who are in school to give up prep time to move to a different classroom for additional compensation.
School assistants and other employees with a university degree, sometimes the headmasters themselves, are picked up. But that releases the employees from their regular duties, say the district officials. The main concern is not to withhold too many over-professional hours from special education students who need additional individual support.
The lack of replacement can also result in elementary school students missing out on time with their music teacher or other professional, and secondary school students with more students being moved to a room with more students while they work on an assignment on their laptop.
Positions that are particularly difficult to fill are elementary specialists – subjects such as music and sports – said Lustig. At other times, a specialist may be called in to fill out in a different classroom.
At secondary schools, where the students are provided with a laptop, the absent teacher often works independently on a digital task during a lesson with Sub.
At New Ulm High School, Bertrang said, sometimes two classes are moved to one room, like the auditorium, where a teacher can supervise all students. At Mankato High Schools, Lustig said that a class without a teacher could be combined with a study room.
This fall, advertisements for replacement applications were posted on many county’s websites, in parenting newsletters, and on social media sites.
Mankato and Neu-Ulm are among the districts that encourage young professionals and interested parents to get a replacement certificate.
âWe turn over every stone we can find,â said Bertrang.
It usually takes at least a month for the state to approve an application, Lustig said, but people can begin the district’s separate application process before they can get their license.
Teachers on Call is also “recruiting like crazy,” Sowers said, with new referral bonuses and ads emphasizing that applicants only need a bachelor’s degree in any subject. The company also assists applicants with applying for their state license.
Last month, Mankato’s school board approved a pay rise for substitute teachers as well as other substitute workers. Fill-in teachers now earn $ 150 per day. That’s an increase of $ 20. If they work less than a full day, they get $ 25 an hour with a minimum of two hours.
Westerburg said LCWM also looked at the salary spectrum, found it to be in line with other counties, and decided that a few extra dollars probably wouldn’t be enough to attract new replacements.
At the New Ulm Adult Education Centers there are now two full-time representatives who appear daily at a school and represent an absent teacher. Bertrang said he would prefer to have four such full-time employees – one for each school – but there were no applicants for the other two positions.
Teachers on Call recommends many districts fill such full-time alternates, and more are doing so this year, Sowers said.
Mankato High Schools are testing a new system this year that has some similarities with learning halls. Some teachers are assigned on-call time to supervise the lessons of students who are self-employed.
The new system will help with the replacement shortage and create cost savings for the school district, said Tom Sager, director of business services. The “superiors” receive a lower remuneration than if they serve as a full representative.
The only requirement to be a short-term substitute teacher in Minnesota is a four-year college degree. And the degree doesn’t have to be educational.
Subs must also pass a background exam and acquire a state teaching license of the lowest level. Some school districts help interested people apply for a license.
For longer-term substitutions in the same class, usually substituting for a teacher on leave, higher requirements apply.
Some school officials want the college degree requirements lifted, at least until the pandemic has largely ended.
Westerburg suggested at least two years of college. He said he had paraprofessionals and others who could then step in.
“There are a lot of able people who can come in and make a lesson plan,” he said.
Bills to reduce the educational minimum to two years were tabled in the final legislative term of the State Capitol, but did not get off the committee.
Opsal and education leaders looking for replacements say the greatest benefit of replacement teaching is flexibility.
Today, representatives can log into an online portal, view all vacancies in the district or in the districts for which they work, and decide on a job.
Ospal prefers to teach only secondary school students and usually stays at St. Clair, with occasional trips to Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton.
The coronavirus has caused her some hesitation, she said, but she has been less concerned since she was vaccinated and thinks she is needed now more than ever.
“I can help children and districts become more normal during COVID,” she said.
For people looking for more hours, according to school officials, replacements can usually be found five days a week when school is closed.
Teachers on Call offers health insurance and other benefits.
No end in sight
The district officials do not expect the replacement shortage to end any time soon.
Of course, the course of the pandemic and its impact on teacher absenteeism are difficult to predict, they said as a new variant of coronavirus hit the U.S. and the state. Even after the pandemic has subsided, it is likely to have a lasting impact on the labor market.
Sowers said districts must consider increasing replacement wages in order to be more competitive.
In the longer term, the state must also find ways to attract and retain more educators at all levels, Sowers said. Fewer people are entering and leaving the profession, and that affects replacement needs and availability.
“There is a shortage of educational talent in Minnesota and across the country,” he said.