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Districts try new approaches to cover absent teachers

Around five years ago, more people were graduating from college with a degree in education than there were positions available. Today, that has changed and many school districts are finding it difficult to find teachers to substitute when full-time staff are absent.

“Many people with teaching certificates were not getting jobs and chose not to enter the professions due to lack of opportunity and completing a degree in an area they were not using,” said Amy Rogers, associate professor of education at Lycoming College, of the situation years ago.

“Pennsylvania was oversaturated with teacher candidates — that absolutely had an impact on the number of people entering the profession,” she added.

Other issues also factored into the decrease in people entering the field of education.

“Many chose not to enter the profession due to the growth of accountability and high stakes testing,” Rogers said. “Teachers are evaluated on student outcomes with a considerable amount of factors in those outcomes that are out of teacher control.”

In order to teach in this state, a student must attain a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, complete and be trained in teacher education classes, student teach for a minimum of 12 weeks as approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and pass all tests required by the state for degree certification.

In Pennsylvania there has also been a decrease in state funding over the last eight years which has had schools scrambling with ways to deal with a decrease in funding. Teachers were furloughed and the number of people entering the profession decreased.

Rogers noted that the state was also at its peak in teacher certification in 2013, but there has been around a 62 per cent decline in teacher enrollment programs since 2010, which in turn has affected the number of substitute teachers available.

According to a publication from the state’s department of education, the state is facing “a steep decline in the number of qualified teaching candidate, particularly in rural and urban school districts and for hare-to-staff areas like special education, English language instruction and STEM.”

In a January 2018 publication it was noted that since 1996 the number of undergraduate education majors in the state decline by 55 per cent. The number of newly certified teachers also dropped by 63 per cent since 2010.

“PDE tracks data related to teacher shortages, but not substitutes. Given though, that there is a teacher shortage across the state, it wouldn’t be surprising if districts were having difficulties finding substitutes,” said Eric Levis, press secretary for the state’s education department.

Williamsport — Solutions

Dr. Timothy Bowers, superintendent at the Williamsport Area School Districts agreed with the fact that fewer students attending college are going into the education field.

“I believe that for those who do graduate, they’re seeking other full-time employment as they come out of college to help pay down their debt which is making them less available,” Bowers said.

As the superintendent of the largest school district in the area with an enrollment of over 4,800 students, Bowers noted that on any given day, the district is short about 20 substitute teachers to cover classes.

“We use what personnel we have available to us to fill those positions throughout the day. It has significant impact on our students, as it takes away from not only consistency, but also the quality of instruction they’re receiving,” Bowers said.

In order to alleviate the situation, Williamsport has adopted several ways of encouraging substitutes to the district. These include increasing the daily rate for substitute teachers to $120 per day for the first 45 days and $130 per day for anything beyond 45 days for certified substitutes. Non-certified subs start at $90 per day. The district also began running ad campaigns, doing follow-ups with job candidates to encourage them to become substitutes and participating in job fairs.

Loyalsock Township — Challenging years

Gerald McLaughlin, Loyalsock Township School District’s superintendent agreed. He said that his district’s pool of substitute teachers is half of what it was a few years ago.

“We have struggled,” McLaughlin said, referring to difficulty in finding qualified substitutes.

“The last two years have been challenging,” he said, adding that “Our teachers have been fantastic in covering classes when teachers are absent.”

Last year, Loyalsock hired two substitute teachers to come in every day for the second half of the year and McLaughlin indicated that this is most likely to occur again this year.

“The shortage of substitutes is a problem that will continue to grow across the county,” he said.

South Williamsport — A different perspective

“I think we have trouble covering classes at times, but I’m cautious not to call it a substitute shortage,” said Dr. Mark Stamm, superintendent of the South Williamsport Area School District.

Stamm noted that any employer who has absences can handle it easier that a school does on a day-to-day basis.

“Schools as employers are unique. If a teacher’s absent, you have to have other arrangements for the kids,” he said.

Stamm said he believes the lack of substitute teachers is caused by the fact that the unemployment rate is around four percent and also because many schools are just not hiring new teachers.

“Given that schools across Pennsylvania are not hiring new teachers any more, the incentive for a teacher to stay in the substitute pool is not what it used to be because it’s slim to unlikely that it’s going to lead to a full-time job,” he said.

Many districts in the state, according to Stamm, are not hiring because they face deficits due to increases in employee retirement benefits and changes in state funding.

“South Williamsport is facing a $500,000 deficit,” he said. “I’m not hiring new teachers. Everyone who retires, we reevaluate their position. In my tenure we’ve gone from 110 to 94 teachers.”

He admitted that although the student population has decreased somewhat, it’s not enough to justify that great of a decrease in staff.

“Every district in the state is re-evaluating positions, so the incentive is not there to become a substitute,” he Stamm said.

He stressed that he doesn’t believe that the situation will ever reach the point of being a crisis, but that districts will have to change the way they respond to the situation.

“We’ve come up with some innovative ways to fill the gaps. I don’t think that’s a crisis, that’s just the changing nature of it,” he added.

Stamm related how 15 years ago if a teacher was absent, there was a sub and things just kept on moving. Now, the district is divided into a grade level team structure, so if a teacher is absent and there is no sub, every grade level has a period of time they have to fill that spot. They pick the teacher out of that grade level that will fill that spot. Sometimes they have had to double up classes or distribute kids.

“The unfortunate side of it, no matter who is there, when the teacher is absent, the kids don’t get the same quality of instruction,” he said.

“Irregardless of the sub, and we have some great subs, the quality of instruction is not the same,” he added.

Muncy and Jersey Shore — An alternative

Some school districts, like Muncy and Jersey Shore, have begun using a service called Source4Teachers to staff substitute teachers, as well as other staff in the case of Jersey Shore.

According to Dr. Craig Skaluba, superintendent at Muncy, on the day he spoke to the Sun-Gazette, 88 per cent of the absentee teachers were covered by staff from the service, leaving 12 per cent unstaffed. In that case, Skaluba said, the remaining classes are staffed internally by teachers giving up planning time to cover classes.

“No matter, classes will be covered,” he stressed. “We’re fortunate enough to cover with our own staff.”

Jill Wenrich, superintendent at Jersey Shore admitted that there is a shortage of substitutes in her district, although she noted that the number of absences depends on the day, with more on Monday or Friday and fewer during the week.

Utilizing Source4Teachers allows many teachers that have retired from the district to return as subs, Wenrich said.

“We can use retired teachers as much as we want. We are very grateful. It is a benefit, a win-win situation,” she said.

Other options — guest teachers

Another solution that districts have begun using is what is sometimes called the “guest teacher” program.

According to Rogers the Guest Teacher Program is a service offered to local school districts through the Intermediate Unit No. 17. The program provides substitute teacher training to people who have a bachelor’s degree, but no state teaching certificate.

The interactive training sessions, conducted by intermediate unit professionals provide instruction in planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction and professionalism.

“Guest teachers leave the program with an emergency permit issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the basic knowledge to be an effective substitute teacher in the consortium school districts” and/or intermediate unit classroom, Rogers said.

If an educator has a bachelor’s degree but does not have a certification, a public school can request an emergency permit for potential hires for up to a one school year period, although public schools have unlimited powers to request re-issuance of emergency permits, Rogers noted.

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