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Facing shortages and more teacher absences, schools are hurting for subs

Photo of classroom. / Ridofranz
The Jordan School District typically needs between 200-300 subs a day.

In an effort to attract more people to try out substitute teaching — or return to it — the Jordan School District announced Thursday it was offering a $500 bonus for anyone who fills in for at least 30 days by Dec. 15. It’s an experiment they’re trying out until the end of the semester.

The district said it typically needs about 200-300 subs a day and faces a constant challenge filling openings.

“We have 67 schools with almost 58,000 students,” said district spokesperson Sandra Riesgraf. “That's a lot of substitute teachers. And just in the past month or so, we've seen that we're falling short every single day.”

It’s a persistent challenge for schools across Utah and the country, but it’s reaching new heights during the current school year as there are fewer available substitutes and teachers are requesting more time off.

Riesgraf said last year, teachers were hesitant to stay home even when sick because they wanted to be there for their students and didn’t want to put additional pressure on their colleagues — despite the increased workload and stress brought on by the pandemic.

“We're into the school year and it's going well, and I think they feel more comfortable taking that time they deserve and we want to make sure that they can take that time,” she said. “So this is as much for our teachers to give them some relief as it is for substitute teachers.”

The staffing strain also extends to other positions, such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers, Riesgraf said. Nationally, 77% of districts report “moderate” to “very severe” staffing shortages, according to a recent EdWeek survey. Only 5% said they have no staffing issues.

“It’s across the board,” said Canyons District spokesperson Jeff Haney. “We've even had to make announcements to our community that the menu options that we typically offer to our schools sometimes are reduced. And that's because of the supply chain, but a lot of it is because we are so short staffed.”

Haney said the district's pool of 300 subs is often not enough to fill the classroom openings. Just this week, three members of his staff in the communications department — two administrative assistants and a videographer — took over classes for the day, he said.

There are likely many reasons behind the labor shortage, but low pay is often cited as one of the primary barriers in the broader economy.

Haney said the Canyons district has raised bus driver pay by over $1 an hour and rates for substitutes have increased to $95-$135 per day. So far though, it has not been enough to entice more people.

While Utah schools have received millions in federal COVID relief, some of which has gone to hiring more support staff, the money is temporary and some districts are hesitant to use it to boost base salary scales as they likely won’t be able to continue paying higher wages when it runs out.

Riesgraf said the Jordan district hopes the $500 bonus, which is coming from the district’s general fund, will provide an incentive.

“We think this might be very attractive for somebody who needs to have a flexible schedule but wants to get back into the workforce or somebody who's never tried substitute teaching before,” she said. “If you want to see what goes on in the classroom and be a part of it, this might be the perfect job for you.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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