ST. GEORGE — Substitute teachers are an absolute necessity when it comes to keeping schools running and providing continuity for students when their regular teachers are away, and their support is in greater demand than ever in Washington County as a result of several factors, not least of which is the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Steven Dunham, public relations and foundation director for Washington County School District, told St. George News that the ongoing public health crisis has led to a smaller pool of available substitutes.
“It shrank at the beginning of the pandemic,” Dunham said. “When that came on, a lot of people pulled their name out of the hat.”
Trina Baine is the St. George account manager for ESS, a nationwide company dedicated to filling understaffed classrooms with substitute teachers or paraprofessionals – employees who work with special education students in small-group classes or one-on-one with special needs students who are integrated into regular classes but require support.
Baine said the effects of the pandemic on the substitute and paraprofessional situation is two-fold. First, she said, substitute teachers are often senior citizens, including many retired teachers. While age can bring wisdom and experience to the classroom, it can also bring a greater risk of serious COVID-19 infection.
Additionally, parents also make up the lion’s share of the nation’s substitute teachers – especially moms looking for family-friendly work. However, a significant number of these parents have opted to homeschool their children since the start of the pandemic for a variety of reasons, which means substitute teaching is put on hold. In some of these homeschool cases, it’s the seniors who trade subbing for supervising their homeschooled grandchildren if the parents still need to work.
Baine coordinates the substitute efforts for Washington County public schools as well as Valley Academy charter school in Hurricane. She said mornings are hectic as she and her coworkers assign more than 100 substitute teachers and paraprofessionals on average to local schools each day. Despite their best efforts, Blaine said anywhere from five to 45 school staff absences aren’t filled on a daily basis.
“There’s always a need for more.”
Taking a time out
The problem created by a lack of available substitutes is compounded by an increased need over the past year and a half. Besides common illnesses or teachers missing school to attend professional development, which may take place at least once a month, Dunham said the pandemic has resulted in teachers racking up more absences than they once did.
It’s not just confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 or quarantine spurring these sick days, he said. Societal norms are changing.
Americans are known for their “the show must go on” work ethic, which has traditionally prompted people to push through illnesses, from colds to flus and from sinus infections to strep throat. However, in the midst of a pandemic, this kind of fortitude is seen more as a risk than a virtue.
“When somebody coughs in a room, every head turns,” Dunham said. “More than ever, the district is appealing to students and staffers to just stay home. We want them to use the sick days the district has provided. The goal is to keep our buildings safer, not only for students but for the remaining staff.”
While some people have put thoughts of subbing on hold, other candidates are finding the job more fulfilling than ever and are committed to helping keep Southern Utah’s kids in classrooms, which most experts agree allows for healthy learning and socialization.
Baine said these substitutes are heroes, “just like frontline workers.”
“They’re out there every day, making a difference for kids and putting students first,” she said, adding that it’s an undertaking that comes with meaning as well as money. “Substitutes get a warm and fuzzy feeling from those kids who get to respond to them. You get to have that influence.”
Becoming a substitute teacher or paraprofessional is surprisingly easy, Baine said, adding that the first step is applying at the ESS website. In order to qualify, applicants need to have an associate’s degree or 48 hours of college, attend a final training held by ESS and pass a background check. Candidates who have a high school degree but haven’t pursued higher education can also qualify to be part of the ESS roster by passing a Parapro test.
Once approved, some substitutes are quite specific as to where they teach. They may opt to only sub at the school their child or grandchild attends so they can transport them to and from school each day. Others have preferences specific to age or subject matter, while others will take any types of assignments, including driving to the district’s furthermost reaches or stepping into a class that doesn’t match their perceived expertise.
Baine emphasized that subbing is a very versatile job
“We have people that only teach high school math, people only teach ROTC, people only do tech work, people who only do dual-immersion Spanish class,” she said. “You can work in any of our schools or just one. You can work on Tuesdays, you can work only on the 11th of the month – whatever works. Our system is tailored to fit your schedule.”
Baine said that while many people may choose to simply dabble in substitute teaching, it’s also an increasingly viable career option.
“Right now, with the situation in schools across the United States, I believe if you wanted to work full-time as a substitute teacher, I could employ you every single day.”
The pay scale for substitute teachers in the Washington County School District ranges from $75 to $165 per day, depending on qualifications and experience. For those seeking longer-term security, ESS offers programs where substitutes can obtain medical, dental and vision insurance as well as a 401k, Baine said.
ESS also has further incentive programs for employees. For instance, after someone has taken on 30 assignments, they get an $8 per day raise that stays with them for the rest of the school year. There’s also a referral program, ongoing training and monthly awards and raffles for their substitutes.
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