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School districts in Wapello County work to combat substitute teacher shortage

Published: Oct. 18, 2021 at 5:17 PM CDT
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OTTUMWA, Iowa (KYOU) - Staffing shortages across the US are affecting schools across Wapello County as districts struggle to find substitute teachers.

It’s driven the Ottumwa Community School District to hire on 10 long-term subs: full time substitutes that can cover almost any teacher or staff that’s absent on a given day. Jill Simmons, the Horace-Mann long-term sub, recalls she’s “been the music teacher, the art teacher, the P.E. teacher…” She’s been in the position for around five weeks. Yet even with two long-term subs at the Ottumwa High School, two at Evans, and one at each elementary school - including Simmons - it’s not enough to cover every absence. David Harper, the HR director for Ottumwa Schools, estimates 30% of absent positions go unfilled each day across the district.

“Finding subs right now has been very difficult for us,” he explains. “On any given day we have a handful of certified and non-certified position that we can’t fill. DH4 - “When we couldn’t find any subs, we’ve had to combine or split up some classes.” That’s even with moving teachers around on their “prep” period - a method that also results in extra pay that hour for that teacher.

While Harper blames the current situation on an “uptick” of absences, he says, even worse, the district’s substitute selection seems to be shrinking. “Our pool has gotten a lot smaller,” says Harper. “It seems like...finding people that want to sub has been very difficult.”

If a teacher knows they’ll be absent the next day, they let their principal know, who approves the absence, and puts an alert in the district’s Frontline system. The automated system then pushes out the opening to available subs and begins to contact them up until school begins the next day.

Simmons says it’s rare for Horace-Mann to have a day without an absence: “I’m going to cover whoever is not covered.” Her only limit is not subbing for one teacher more than 10 days.

While other subs teach in the school day-to-day, Harper says it’s convenient to have a permanent sub ready to go. “Instead of going through the process of trying to dial up and find a sub, that building principal can immediately have - if that sub’s in their building, already available - they can immediately get that sub to that classroom. So we have less disruption for those students.”

Ottumwa’s Superintendent says the district is taking other measures to lessen teacher and staff absences as well. “It is a challenge right now. Our district recognizes it. We’re really trying to be proactive.” Other measures the district’s taken includes: signing bonuses for new teachers, paying teachers an end of year incentive for remaining personal days, or covering the screening test fee required for full-time associates.

Because while Harper says the long-term subs have helped - the initiative may not be a permanent solution.

These subs are paid by ESSER funds, a non-recurring, federal payment. So, by the end of the school year the subs’ contracts will be up. Harper says he’s hopeful that by Spring they’ll be back on track. “We’ll be back on hopefully some kind of rhythm.”

Cardinal schools’ superintendent says most days they’re able to cover absences, but are still short. He writes that finding substitutes has become a bigger challenge each year, as well as a morale issue for teachers covering with their prep period.

The Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont district superintendent, Scott Williamson, explains another route his district is going: certifying paraprofessionals (sometimes known as aides or teacher assistants) as substitutes. Paraprofessionals are full-time employees, meaning they could sub each day. “They can sub 180 days a year,” Williamson says, as long as they don’t hit that same 10 day limit.

All three districts also generally share the same pool of subs. Harper says that stretches substitute teacher availability even more.

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