Substitute teachers are lacking, teachers left clinging to hope for normalcy

Katelyn Waltemyer
Jackson Newspapers
Cinnamon Oates teaches a 7th grade civics class at LC Swain Middle School Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Palm Beach County schools, like those across the nation, are experiencing a teacher shortage. LC Swain has 6 vacancies - some due to higher than expected enrollment. This means that teachers are teaching an extra period and classes are larger than preferred until those vacancies can be filled.

The substitute teacher shortage in Jackson County has been felt since COVID-19 showed up. But this year, with in-person learning, it feels much, much worse. 

Adena Barnette, Ripley High School social studies teacher and president of the county's education association, would rather postpone a day off than not know who's going to be instructing her students. 

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"I would rather not do something than be absent and not know who's going to be in my room and then have to deal with the aftermath," she said. "If you don't have someone in that room that you can trust, then you're going to be much, much less likely to take off."

This is the harsh reality of being a teacher during the pandemic. Jackson County is just one of countless school systems across the U.S. that's experiencing a teacher shortage.

Education Week, a news organization that's solely covered education since 1981, found in one of its surveys that 77% of school officials have struggled to hire substitute teachers this school year. Only 5% of respondents said they aren't experiencing any staff shortages. 

James Carnell, assistant superintendent for personnel and instructional services for Jackson County Schools, said hiring substitute teachers hasn't been much of a challenge it's been getting the subs in the schools. Currently, the county has about 80 subs on its call sheet, which is normal to what they've had in years past. But it doesn't matter how many subs are in the system if they won't answer the call.

If teachers don't make arrangements with subs before their day off, a call system notifies the enrolled substitutes about the opening the evening prior. If no one accepts the job that night, another call will go out early the morning of. 

Unfilled teacher roles have led to some hectic evenings and mornings at central office. Carnell said in November one of the Ripley schools had several unfilled substitute positions on the same day. After coordinating with Blaine Hess, the county's superintendent, six central office staffers were instructed to fill the gaps  they spent the day in classrooms. 

Between substitute teachers who are in long-term positions, have retired or have stopped accepting assignments for personal reasons like pay or not wanting to work in the midst of a pandemic, the lack of help has put new stressors on teachers in Jackson County. 

Barnette said many subs in Jackson County are retired teachers. Many of them have stepped back from the classroom since the pandemic began. 

"Some people just didn't feel comfortable coming in at all," she said. "I feel like that they've not come back yet because we don't have a resolution yet. COVID's still spreading."

The call system is the last resort. Barnette always tries to coordinate with subs beforehand that way she knows who's in her classroom. 

She used to have three go-to substitutes who she would contact directly pre-pandemic to cover her classes. Her go-to list has dwindled to one person since COVID-19 began. If that sub can't come in Barnette won't take the day off. She isn't the only one with this mentality. 

In September, Barnette had to schedule a procedure at Jackson General Hospital. She scheduled it for the end of October, but something came up. When she called to reschedule it not even two weeks later for Thanksgiving break, there were no appointments available. 

"They told me at the hospital that they were already booked up with teachers over Thanksgiving break," she said. Now she's getting the procedure during her winter break because she doesn't want to bother with finding a substitute. 

Barnette, like many other teachers across the U.S., is tired. 

Online learning changes expectations 

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Barnette feels like there's been a shift in teacher expectations. Even though the county is conducting in-person school, students who are in quarantine have to learn curriculum, complete and turn in assignments online. 

Barnette gets emails at all hours for nearly two years. She feels like she never truly clocks out. Teachers must, or feel obligated to, help their online students 24/7. 

She's the kind of teacher, though, that doesn't mind when her students email her. She wants them to feel like they can reach out, but it's taken a toll. 

"That's the kind of mentality we're gonna have to try and break over time," she said. "I think that people have just gotten very accustomed to this 24-hour communication thing."

The pandemic has put more pressure on teachers. Whether it's responding to online students within a timely manner or ensuring the health and safety of their students in the classroom, their plates are full. 

Barnette attended Jackson County Public Schools and graduated from Ripley High School. She's a true believer in public education but deserves teachers deserve more support than they are currently receiving. 

According to board meeting minutes, three subs have resigned since October and five have been hired. Carnell hopes the next round of student teachers who are graduating in December will alleviate some of the pressures teachers are still facing. 

"I certainly have empathy and compassion for those folks who are reporting to work probably on some days that they should stay home because they're just so tired," he said. "I hope that they realize that we're doing the best we can to get coverage for them."

Several substitute teachers have spoken to the Jackson County Board of Education to share what it's like being in the classrooms right now. It isn't easy. The common theme among them was dissatisfaction with the pay system. 

The county is given substitute teacher salary guidelines by the state. For their first 10 days in one substitute role, they are paid the rate of someone with zero years of experience, regardless of how much experience that person actually has.

On day 11, if the sub is in the same position, covering for the same employee and hasn't missed a day their pay will be bumped up to match their experience. At 30 days in the same position, the sub receives another bump in pay, which puts them at what they would make if they were a regular, full-time employee. 

The subs who spoke in an October board meeting said that's a daunting task  it's hard to work 30-consecutive days during a pandemic. 

If a substitute works 29 days but can't come into work on the 30th day because something came up or they have to quarantine, their pay rate goes back to the beginning. 

Despite the struggle to find subs, Barnette encourages all of her colleagues to use their paid time off, but that hasn't made it easier for them to take those days, she said. 

Despite the slight increase in subs, Barnette said the situation hasn't changed since October. Teachers in Jackson County, and across the country, are longing for a sliver of normalcy. 

"I think we all keep hoping that there's going to be, I don't know, maybe we're going to have less responsibility, that we're going to find some sense of normalcy, but we haven't," Barnette said. "We haven't made it back to that yet."

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— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.