Wisconsin schools struggle with finding substitute teachers for a third year

Education

Wisconsin schools struggle with finding substitute teachers for a third year

District administrators in Green Bay, La Crosse and elsewhere around the state are digging deep to find temporary staff to cover for employees who are out sick as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 rages.

By Kim Leadholm

January 20, 2022 • Northeast Region

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A teachers sits in an officer chair facing a screen for a virtual classroom in a gym filled with stacked chairs and other items.

A gym teacher at Samuel Gompers Elementary School in Madison leads a virtual class session in March 2021. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)


School districts across Wisconsin are once again being forced to deal with the consequences of a COVID-19 surge — in a third consecutive school and calendar year. The serious virulence of the omicron variant has made it difficult for school districts to keep operations running as staff fall sick or head into quarantine. Due to this situation, many districts in the state are facing staff shortages in the early weeks of 2022.

"We're experiencing challenges, ensuring short staff at really all levels of employee and public districts, it doesn't matter the size of district or geographical location," said John Bales, executive director for the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. "So it is not uncommon to have days where you don't have sufficient staff in all size districts across the state."

The availability of substitute teachers is directly linked to and in turn affected by this staffing shortage. When full-time teachers or other staff are unable to head into work, substitute teachers are called to come in and cover for them. If substitutes are unavailable, though, schools must find other ways to cover their classrooms.

"We were struggling to keep up when we just had the normal absences. And now that we have essentially doubled them with covid, we find ourselves in a position in which we simply don't have enough subs to go around to cover all those absences," Green Bay Area Public School District Superintendent Stephen Murley said.

In the Green Bay district, specific schools moved to virtual learning as the new year started as a result of staff shortages. Murley noted that Washington Middle School was closed and went to virtual learning on January 6, 7 and 10, while Chappell Elementary School and Minoka High School Program moved to virtual learning as well.

Green Bay was not the only school district in the state to move to virtual learning from staff shortages. Logan Middle School in the School District of La Crosse moved to virtual learning January 6-7. District Superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel said La Crosse is facing substitute staff shortages as well.

"So, prior to the pandemic in 2019, we had about 200-230 individuals on our substitute list, folks that were interested in substituting. Since the pandemic started, that's been cut in half. It's just over 100-120 now," Engel said. "So historically on a given day, with our sub-pool or absences, we might have a 90-100% fill rate. Every absence was filled by an adult who was in our sub-pool. Now on good days, we're looking at 80%, and on bad days it might be closer to 50%. So, we might have 40-50 unfilled substitute positions across our school district on a given day."

This inability to cover staff has causes significant strain on school districts elsewhere, as also seen in the Spooner Area School District, yet another district trying to alleviate the strain.

According to Murley, the Green Bay school district covered the costs of maintaining a substitute teacher license.

"Right in the middle of the pandemic, we offered free substitute teacher training. Normally if you want to get your sub certification, you either go through your local Cooperative Education Service Agency, maybe you might go through your local district," said Murley. "There's a cost associated with it. We just ran a session for free."

Additionally, Bales said the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators is looking at state policy to help alleviate the strain.

"We're examining ways we can increase the pool of people certainly in this critical period of the pandemic," Bales said.

Despite these efforts, the shortage of substitute teachers is likely to cause an ongoing strain on public schools across the states as long as the pandemic persists, and potentially longer. Both Murley and Engel said they may have to move specific schools in their respective districts to virtual learning again if staff shortages continue, but hope that will not be the case.

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