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As teachers quarantine, Philly-area schools hunt for substitutes

“It’s a major development that’s affecting the ability of schools to open,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

The Cherry Hill School District is recruiting substitute teachers on contracts running through June as schools grapple with staffing shortages amid the pandemic.
The Cherry Hill School District is recruiting substitute teachers on contracts running through June as schools grapple with staffing shortages amid the pandemic.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

As schools across the region try to maintain in-person schooling amid the pandemic, some face a challenge: They don’t have enough teachers.

School leaders in recent weeks have been reporting gaps in staffing — in part, they say, because more teachers have been exposed to the virus. In some cases, districts have shifted to virtual learning because they don’t have staff to provide face-to-face instruction.

And even substitute teachers are in short supply — spurring some school districts to recruit community members and parents to fill in.

“We need you!” the West Chester Area School District said in a flier, advertising “an urgent need” for substitute teachers and paraprofessionals. In Cherry Hill, the school district seeks to hire substitute teachers directly, instead of relying solely on a staffing company to provide them — and is offering contracts that run through June and include benefits.

The scramble for substitutes isn’t a new problem. But the pandemic has added new pressures for schools across the country as teachers have been exposed to the spreading virus or taken leave due to health concerns or child-care challenges.

“It’s a major development that’s affecting the ability of schools to open,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, noting that half of schools nationally are operating fully remotely.

As the virus has surged, “it doesn’t bode well for schools” to be able to shift to in-person instruction early in the coming semester, Domenech said.

In the Philadelphia region — where some districts have been fully remote all fall, while others have brought some children back five days a week — school leaders providing in-person instruction said they’ve had administrators supervise classrooms and teachers give up their preparation time to fill the gaps.

» READ MORE: Schools with coronavirus cases could be forced to close on short notice under new Pa. rules

“I don’t see it slowing down until we have lower transmission rates and a vaccine that is distributed out there,” said West Chester Superintendent Jim Scanlon, who added that staff absences have been a challenge.

During one week in November, about 90 of the district’s 950 teachers were out each day, compared with about 53 per day during the same week last year.

While the district has more than 100 daily substitutes it can call, fewer than usual have been able or willing to work: The district is filling about half of its vacancies this fall, Scanlon said, compared with about 90% last year.

Assessing the scope of the shortages is difficult. The Pennsylvania Department of Education said it is aware of challenges hiring substitutes but is not tracking the issue. The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said it did not know how many of its members were on leave due to the pandemic or quarantining.

“What we’re seeing in the school districts is generally what’s happening everywhere” as more people in the community are exposed to the virus and required to quarantine, said PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal. He said the union helped some members apply for leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws allowing paid leave for employees forced to quarantine or care for children due to the pandemic.

When shortages have arisen, “school districts for the most part have been making very responsible decisions by transitioning to remote instruction,” Lilienthal said.

In the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District, Conestoga High School shifted to virtual instruction Monday based on the number of staff who have reported that they will be absent, the district said on its website. A union representative directed questions about the absences to the district; a district spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

In the Ridley School District, there are 600 on staff. But the week began with 25 teachers on leave, three more requesting leave, and 44 others absent. Superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel has closed buildings twice this fall because she didn’t have enough staff.

The district has taken that step after exhausting other options, Wentzel said — like tapping substitutes to step in, and combining classes. Some high school classes are sparsely attended, meaning two or three groups of several students can be supervised by one teacher in the 825-square-foot auditorium.

» READ MORE: As COVID-19 cases surge, should schools stay open? Around the Philly region, approaches vary wildly.

“It’s yeoman’s work every day,” between “navigating the bodies, and then my assistant principals figuring out how to have classrooms covered,” said Wentzel, who recently filled in as an elementary school principal.

A number of Ridley teachers on leave are still teaching remotely — for varying reasons, they cannot physically report to classrooms, Wentzel said. But the district still needs an adult overseeing students.

That situation has also arisen in places like West Chester, where the district is advertising for substitutes who don’t necessarily have teaching certificates. In those cases, “we just need somebody to be in the class with the kids,” Scanlon said. The district had gotten 150 responses after advertising last month for substitutes at a rate of $150 per day, and paraprofessionals, $85 per day, he said; a third-party company, Kelly Services, is handling hiring.

“Certainly, we’re seeing more demand” for substitutes, said Brad Beckner, vice president and practice leader for the Northeast region at Kelly Education. In the Philadelphia area, “we would be able to put hundreds of people to work if we had those folks.”

In addition to clearances, Pennsylvania requires that substitutes have teaching certificates, though people with bachelor’s degrees can become substitutes by obtaining emergency certification from the state. The requirements are more stringent than many other states, some of which only require high school diplomas.

The pandemic has prompted some states to call for more substitutes — including Connecticut, where the state is allowing college students to fill in staffing gaps.

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In New Jersey, which requires substitutes to have 60 college credits, the Cherry Hill School District is hoping to attract college students who are home for extended winter breaks or because their schools are operating remotely.

While those students could serve as daily substitutes, the district is also looking to hire long-term substitutes — in part to prepare to hire quickly if teachers take leave in the spring, said Joe Meloche, Cherry Hill’s superintendent. The district is offering contracted substitute positions through June at a $250 daily rate.

The district — which switched back to remote learning last month after eight days of in-person instruction — also hopes to provide more continuity in a tumultuous year, Meloche said.

Instead of pivoting between daily substitutes, he said, he would rather tell parents “the same teacher is going to be with your kids for the next week.”