Teacher Burnout: Sub shortage at a crisis level

Too many teachers in southern Arizona districts are covering other classes
KOLD Investigates: Substitute shortage
Published: Oct. 7, 2021 at 7:20 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Many local school districts continue to feel the sting of staff shortages. Two of the largest districts said substitute teachers are in high demand this school year.

It’s yet another labor-related problem worsened by the pandemic.

We’ve reported on the dire need for more teachers, nurses, bus drivers, counselors and now we can add substitute teachers to the growing list of staff shortages. Many school districts continue to confront this crisis with little signs of letting up.

Simply put: crucial job openings are not being filled. And that’s impacting how fast students recover from more than a year of pandemic learning.

Staff are sometimes stretched to the brim covering classes in schools. Delores de Vera is seeing it firsthand.

“When you see that breakdown, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.

She’s been a substitute teacher in TUSD for a decade. This year, she said, is unlike any other.

“I had 72 jobs to choose from. I screen out all the elementary schools,” said de Vera, “So that’s a lot of jobs. I’ve never seen that many jobs.”

For perspective, she’s used to seeing an average of three to eight job openings.

“But 72 was a lot,” she said.

TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo points to a possible reason: teacher absences.

“It might be a result of burnout, which is creating a larger than normal need for subs and for sub coverage in the district,” he said.

de Vera explains why that could be the case. Teachers are losing their planning periods to cover classes if subs aren’t brought in.

“Every time one sub doesn’t show up, you need five teachers who will give up their planning period to cover. So that’s a lot of teachers who are giving up their planning period. They’re just stressed out because they have to keep covering for their colleagues. It’s is stressful time coming back to the routine,” de Vera said.

And TUSD is not alone.

Without subs, several districts report having to call in certified staffers, including administrators, into classrooms or dividing up classes among teachers, meaning some classes could have more than 30 students.

It’s not like districts aren’t trying to fill the spots.

TUSD needs 250 to 350 subs per day. But the sub pool has shrunk considerably, more than 50%. That means there are less subs to fill more open spots.

TUSD says it can now only fill 55 to 65% of the classes. It’s quite a dip from 80 to 90% before the pandemic.

And six other districts report drops ranging from 10 to 40%.

TUSD sat in a worse spot than the other districts for a reason: pay.

“What happened is our surrounding districts all went up to over what TUSD was paying -- even at the hard-to-fill schools,” said de Vera, “I do know some TUSD subs, they were people who worked every day in TUSD and they said, let’s go over to Sunnyside, let’s go over to some of these other districts.”

The pricing floor in districts jumped $20 to $30 dollars for daily rates. And $10 to $55 for long-term pay.

But de Vera said pay isn’t her motivating factor. She stressed something that’s often overlooked. de Vera sees firsthand the toll that staff volatility takes on students.

“We do have some classrooms around the district where there’s apparently no long-term sub and no contract teacher,” she said, “So for a period, they get whoever’s showing up that day and it could be a staff member at their schools.”

She said students are less likely to get a cohesive curriculum, making it more difficult to recover from learning loss.

“They’re a lot less likely to do the work and they’re not going to do it well because they don’t know if it’s even going to get graded,’ de Vera said. “And they don’t know if that teacher who’s there that day is going to come back.”

de Vera noted that pay jumps might not be enough to completely solve the sub shortages.

She has been told 20% of the sub pool are retired teachers.

They are typically older and in the higher risk group for COVID and may be reluctant to go into classrooms.

Districts are actively trying to recruit more people into substitute teaching.

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