In a regular year, Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia gets substitute teachers to cover somewhere near 90% of the vacancies that occur daily when educators call out sick or take personal days.

This year, for every five jobs open, “we may get one sub, if we’re lucky,” principal Richard Gordon said. In a way, he is lucky: Rather than pulling classroom teachers to cover those classes, he can rely on his leadership team to fill in. Gordon himself taught Spanish and social studies recently.

“It’s working, but it’s not sustainable,” said Gordon. “We feel like we’re in survival mode.”

Before the pandemic, some districts around the country were already struggling to fill substitute slots. But conditions are now worse, with more openings and fewer workers willing to take on the risks involved with low-pay jobs. Those holes often create a domino effect, with classroom teachers pulled from preparation periods and professional development, and support staff scrambling to cover what’s left — taxing educators on top of what’s already been an unusual, exhausting year, and often denying students the classes and supports they need after 18 months away.

“It’s a struggle nationally,” said Al Sowers, vice president for U.S. field operations for Kelly Education Services, a leading provider of substitute teachers across the country and locally. Pre-COVID-19, Kelly’s national substitute fill rate was typically in the low 90s or high 80s, Sowers said. Now it hovers around 70%.

And in Philadelphia, where Kelly provides substitutes for the 120,000-student district, the rate is an anemic 41%. By early October, Kelly saw 1,000 daily requests for teachers, far more than what it usually sees this time of year; sub requests typically start off low, rising throughout the year.

“To see this level of demand so early — the word unprecedented is overused, but it really is unprecedented,” said Sowers. In Philadelphia, Kelly has 850 teachers in its sub pool, with 400 more in the pipeline. To attract more teachers, Kelly is reviewing its current rates, which range from $126 per day for noncertified teachers to $224 for retired teachers, and contemplating incentives and referral bonuses.

‘I’ve never seen it like this’

In districts around the region, administrators cite as culprits the long-term trends in declining numbers of teaching certificates issued in Pennsylvania coupled with pandemic complications.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Caitlin Navarro, human resources director for the Upper Merion School District. “This is definitely I think the least amount of subs we’ve ever seen, with frankly the most amount of need.”

Like many others, Upper Merion is aiming to hire more “building substitutes,” who are assigned to a school and paid for the entire year — a bigger financial commitment for the district but often more attractive to workers.

“You really don’t have high hopes that someone’s waking up at 6 a.m. and picking up your assignment, which 10 years ago was the way it worked,” Navarro said. Now, morning call-outs from staff “just become much more of a panic situation. You only have so much capacity.”

At Gulph Elementary School in Upper Merion, principal Carole Hoy tries to map out the shuffling she’ll have to do on a spreadsheet the day before, coming up with scenarios: Sometimes she divides up classrooms in the 450-student school to split them among available teachers. Or reading specialists may be tapped to step in and lead classrooms, spurring a ripple effect of shutting down specialized programs for the day, Hoy said.

But there’s only so much she can do to prepare. If there’s an absence in the morning that she didn’t plan for, “it may blow up my system,” she said. She checks her email for updates as soon as she wakes between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

In Gloucester County, Mantua Superintendent Robert Miles needs about 10 substitute teachers daily, but he’s not coming close. Miles knows he’s competing with private-sector employers scrambling to fill positions, too.

Administrators and support staff have pitched in to cover classrooms; Miles, a former math teacher, also steps in when needed.

“It’s really just an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Miles said of the district’s 150 teachers.

In the Centennial School District in Bucks County, only 30% to 35% of requests for substitutes each week are filled. Carol Tolx, the district’s human resources director, says substitutes present some of the same challenges as hiring support staff, including instructional aides, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.

“People are still concerned about COVID, they would rather stay home and be with their family — I’ve seen that a lot,” Tolx said. “They don’t want to jeopardize their potential health and safety.”

The district hired more than 80 support staff over the summer, “and then a lot of them resigned before I even got them to the board,” she said. “It’s a type of person that has the option as to whether they want to work or not.” She added that pandemic unemployment benefits have prompted some private-sector businesses to raise wages to attract workers, adding to the competition schools are facing.

Sowers, from Kelly Educational Services, said that the COVID-19 vaccine requirement it has in place for all new substitute teaching candidates has stopped some potential teachers from following through.

About 20% of people take issue with the vaccination requirement, Sowers said, “and that does impact us,” though that’s not necessarily affecting Philadelphia, he said.

‘People just feel beat up’

Nicole Moore, principal of Indian Mills School in Shamong, Burlington County, is coping with a 70% decrease in substitutes. Only two are usually available these days; in previous years, there was a pool of at least seven for the elementary school.

Moore pulls teachers, usually from prep periods, to cover the absences at the school, which enrolls about 370 students in pre-K through fourth grade.

“It’s never been this bad. Every day, we have unfilled classes,” Moore said. “You do what you can, but it’s like putting Band-Aids on bullet holes.”

Moore believes retired teachers who typically help fill the substitute pool are burned out. The demands of teaching during a pandemic is also keeping them from returning to the classroom, she said.

“The retired teachers are skipping out and not looking back,” Moore said. “It’s hard doing what we do.”

Steven Buller, a health and physical education teacher at Roosevelt Elementary in the Philadelphia School District, is supposed to have five preparation periods a week, time he wants to use to write lesson plans, complete paperwork, or just recharge.

Instead, he’s covering extra classes, usually at least four times a week, Buller said. And since Roosevelt, like many schools in Philadelphia and nationally, is down support staff, he’s also pulled to fill in monitoring student lunches and recess.

“It’s been pretty chaotic,” said Buller. “On top of all the other systemic problems, people are just exhausted. And it gets complex when teachers aren’t familiar with kids in certain grade levels. For me, I have no time to do anything, for the most part.”

To compensate for the lack of time without students, Buller is using more packaged curriculum, rather than creating lessons from scratch. Those lessons generally aren’t as appealing to students or culturally responsive as he’d like, Buller said. And though the teachers’ contract specifies educators are paid for lost preps, the money is beside the point, he said.

“People,” Buller said, “just feel beat up.”

‘We will train you’

The North Penn School District in Montgomery County has raised its daily rates this year by $50, an amount it thought would be enough to draw substitutes from other districts, said Mia Kim, director of human resources. The district is paying $180 a day for substitutes with Pennsylvania teaching certificates, with increases of $10 a day after 25 days in the district. (Guest teachers, who don’t need teaching degrees but have gained emergency certification from the state, earn $170 a day.)

The district has managed to find more substitutes than last year, but Kim said it’s still early. “I’m not going to sugarcoat the fact that it’s a challenge,” Kim said, describing last year as “the worst ever” for substitute holes.

But she and others noted that substitute teaching can be a good way for aspiring teachers to start out — both in terms of getting accustomed to a particular district as well as learning how veteran teachers manage their classrooms. And anyone with a bachelor’s degree can substitute, Kim said: “We will train you.”

More must be done to increase the applicant pool, such as easing certification requirements, offering higher salaries, and putting fewer demands on teachers, said Stacey Leftwich, an education professor at Rowan University, which graduates about 350 new teachers annually.

New Jersey fast-tracked a law last spring to address the shortage, halving the number of college credits substitutes now need to work. Those with 30 credits can become substitutes. In Pennsylvania, substitutes need a college degree or to be enrolled in a teacher-training program and have earned at least 60 credits.

“We need to make education and teaching more attractive,” said Leftwich, president of the New Jersey Association of Colleges for Education. “I don’t know if being a classroom teacher is appealing anymore.”