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Districts say substitute teachers hard to find, especially in coronavirus era

Sandra Gaskin is a substitute teacher in the Eastern Suffolk BOCES system. On Sept. 21, she taught hairstyling at the Milliken Technical Center in Oakdale and spoke about the challenges of being a substitute teacher during COVID-19. Credit: James Carbone

Finding enough substitute teachers often has been an issue for Long Island school districts, but securing subs during a pandemic has become an even greater challenge, educators said.

There’s a smaller pool of candidates to choose from as fewer younger people are going into the field, and retired teachers who have served as substitutes in the past may be sitting this year out due to fear of contracting COVID-19. Additionally, with a mix of hybrid, remote and in-person classroom instruction, substitute teaching is far different from what it used to be.

"There has been a shortage of substitute teachers for a long time. That’s nothing new. However, the pandemic has complicated matters in many cases, and this is true for Long Island, New York State and the nation," said Bill Heidenreich, superintendent of the Valley Stream Central High School District and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents.

Because of the substitute shortage, the state Board of Regents in July approved emergency measures, including giving schools more flexibility in hiring. The hiring change allows for substitutes who are not certificated and not working toward certification — but who hold a high school diploma or its equivalent — to be employed beyond a 40-day limit, for up to an additional 50 days. That gives subs the right to work up to three months, or beyond in rare circumstances.

"The state has eased the requirements that one would need to be a substitute teacher. That is helpful, but it is also a little concerning because you want to make sure the person you are putting in front of the children is completely qualified," Heidenreich said.

Ron Masera, Center Moriches superintendent and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said it's helpful that the Regents board approved additional substitute days, "But if the bodies are not there, it can only help so much."

Masera said his district has encouraged high school students to consider education as a career path "to build that pipeline for future teachers so down the road we have qualified candidates."

But fewer people are going into the profession. Between 2009 and 2017, enrollment in the state’s undergraduate and graduate teacher education programs declined 53%, from more than 79,000 students to about 37,000, according to a report from the New York State Educational Conference Board, which also noted that school districts statewide will need around 180,000 new teachers over the next decade.

The Middle Country school district may have found one solution for its shortage. The district partnered with Stony Brook University last school term to place student-substitutes in schools.

The program was expanded this year to include the Plainedge district, said Terry Earley, director of teacher and leader education at Stony Brook. Students can be either undergraduates or graduate students, and are in their last education methods course before they enter student teaching.

"We were looking for a way to get our kids more experience in the classroom," Earley said. "It’s a win-win for everybody."

Zachary Schulman, 24, of Great Neck worked as a substitute in Middle Country last school year and signed up to do the same this year. The Stony Brook senior is studying to teach grades 7-12, with a specialization in English. He said he would be comfortable serving as a sub for remote instruction as well.

"This program enhances the student-teacher prep experience," Schulman said, adding there was a "profound benefit of being able to work in a classroom with students as the teacher, even if I am reading lesson plans made by another teacher. I had the opportunity to lead a class."

Giovanni D'Ambrosio, 24, of Seaford, a graduate student at Stony Brook, is a student teacher who worked as a substitute in Middle Country until schools closed in March. He was disappointed he couldn't finish the year.

"I loved being there," he said. "I liked the experience. I went there every day as a sub, and when I finished my day, I went to Stony Brook to finish my classes."

Middle Country Superintendent Roberta Gerold said the program has helped meet the needs in the system's 14 buildings. The district pays its substitutes $145 per day. Long Island's pay scale for subs can range from $95 to $200 per day, Masera said.

With COVID-19, there are a new set of skills subs have to use, Gerold said, in that they are "not only in front of the classroom, but connecting virtually with the children at home. It is a different skill set and a whole different structure for schools."

Districts also have had to figure out how to handle instruction with a sub in charge. In the Valley Stream Central High School district, a teacher who may be absent will send assignments to all learners, remote and in-person, and a sub might supervise the students in the classroom, Heidenreich said.

Sandra Gaskin serves as a permanent substitute teacher in the Eastern Suffolk BOCES system and recently taught a hairstyling class at the Milliken Technical Center in Oakdale.

"It's quite a fulfillment to work with the students during the day in a field that I always loved," she said. "Being a substitute teacher is good because you have more flexibility to come and go. It's just welcoming to come back after being out for so long."

Eastern Suffolk BOCES partners with St. Joseph's College for recruitment of substitutes, and also runs a Substitute Services Program, which assists 36 districts with placing subs.

Recently, Eastern Suffolk BOCES had 234 positions that needed to be filled with subs across its 25 campuses. They were able to fill half, and many of the openings were covered with existing staff, said Ryan Ruf, BOCES' deputy superintendent for management services.

Per-day pay for substitute teachers can vary from $90 to upwards of $200.

The New York State Education Department does not issue substitute teaching certificates. Substitute teachers fall into one of the three categories:

  • Substitute teachers with a valid teaching certificate can work in any capacity, for any number of days.
  • Substitute teachers without a valid certificate, but who are working towards certification (taking college coursework) at a rate of not less than six semester hours per year, can work in any capacity, for any number of days, in any number of school districts.
  • During the 2020-2021 school year, due to the COVID-19 crisis, substitute teachers who do not hold a valid teaching certificate and are not working towards certification, but hold a high school diploma or its equivalent, may be employed by the school district or BOCES beyond the 40-day limit, for up to an additional 50 days (90 days total) in a school year. In rare circumstances, a district or BOCES may hire a substitute teacher beyond the 90 days.
  • School districts may have additional local requirements for individuals who are employed as substitute teachers.

The On-Line Application System OLAS is a web-based application that serves participating school districts as their source for filling jobs. This service, powered by Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES, opens up recruiting to a significantly wider pool of candidates for participating districts than can be reached through traditional recruitment methods. It includes listings for substitutes

Source: New York State Education Department; CK Council of school superintendents, Nassau BOCES

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