Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan spoke about staffing shortages in district schools during a Jan. 31 interview. Credit: Barry Sloan

Hiring and retaining substitute teachers, school nurses, custodians and bus drivers remains a problem for Long Island schools, educators said, even with districts seeing fewer staff absences as the winter surge of COVID-19 recedes.

Some districts are struggling daily to find substitute teachers. Students are sitting through longer bus rides as routes are combined. And nurses are caring for two buildings instead of just their own.

What to know

Long Island schools are seeing fewer staff absences as the winter surge of COVID-19 recedes, but there's a shortage of substitute teachers, school nurses and bus drivers.

Experts point to a wave of early retirements, low pay, employee burnout, the availability of better paying options and the increasing politicization of curriculum for the shortages.

The challenge finding substitute teachers has created concerns about underqualified people filling the positions.

 

"It's a scramble every morning," said Jill Gierasch, superintendent of the Cold Spring Harbor school district.

Educators point to several factors driving the scarcity of personnel: a wave of early retirements, low pay, employee burnout, virus concerns and the availability of better-paying options.

To attract new workers, districts are increasing pay and stepping up their recruitment efforts.

Gierasch said her staff comes in daily and reviews which positions need filling. When the district can't find enough substitute teachers, for instance, teachers are asked to fill in during periods they would otherwise use for lesson-planning and grading papers.

The district is short on clerical staff, so a transportation coordinator may fill in answering phones or filing paperwork, Gierasch said.

Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said staff absences are significantly down from the beginning of January, when the problem was so severe that the district turned to remote learning for a week. Districts at the time had to deal with rapidly spreading infections from the omicron variant.

"Things are better every day. There are less and less people out," Kuncham said, adding that certain staffing challenges remain. "It's still not enough. We're continuously seeking people for jobs."

Finding substitute teachers is among the biggest struggles. In general, substitute teaching is a relatively low-paying, intermittent job without benefits. Subs often find out where and what they are teaching the morning they are called.

Subs earn between $110 to $200 per day on the Island, said Mary O'Meara, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage district.

'Some former teachers, who we depended on in the last couple of years, have stepped back and said, Not now.'

Yiendhy Farrelly, superintendent of West Babylon school district

Schools had to reduce class size to accommodate social distancing, which created the need for more teachers. And the state requires teachers either be vaccinated or take a weekly test for the virus, which further thinned the pool of substitutes, O'Meara said.

Traditionally, when teachers retire, they often take up substitute teaching. But many have passed on that due to virus-driven health concerns, West Babylon Superintendent Yiendhy Farrelly said.

"Some former teachers, who we depended on in the last couple of years, have stepped back and said, 'Not now,'" Farrelly said.

Substitute working daily

Substitute teacher Tess Reichart said she has found work every day since January. She's certified in teaching English, but she's been filling in for a month for an eighth-grade science teacher who retired last month in Freeport.

Her class at Dodd Middle School is learning about evolution, and Reichart said she sometimes learns the day's material the morning before class.

"This is tricky. The teacher didn't leave lesson plans," said Reichart, 27, who lives in Freeport. "There's another eighth-grade science teacher next door. She sends me links and worksheets."

Reichart said she is earning $150 a day.

'This isn't the kind of rigorous lessons they need for real learning to happen.' 

Tess Reichart, a substitute teacher at Dodd Middle School in Freeport

Students took a while to accept her, and some tested her boundaries, she said.

"I don't think they're on track. They should be doing labs. But I don't have the materials. They're doing worksheets," she said. "This isn't the kind of rigorous lessons they need for real learning to happen. Learning that is going to stick."

At the same time, student John-Paul Haubeil said he has had a substitute geometry teacher since December. His regular teacher has been out on medical leave. Not a lot of learning occurred in the first days with the sub, he said.

"Of course, it's a substitute. Some kids acted like hooligans. They didn't want to do the work," said Haubeil, 15, who attends Wantagh High School.

But over time, the sub controlled the class and Haubeil said he believes he's up to date with the subject.

"The sub is actually pretty good at geometry," he said.

In New York State, substitute teachers do not need a teaching certificate to get into a classroom.

To alleviate the lack of subs, the state Board of Regents in 2020 approved emergency measures that included giving schools flexibility in hiring substitutes. Uncertified teachers, many whom were limited to working 40 days a school year, can work an additional 50 days — or a total of 90 days over a school year or more under certain circumstances.

The challenge finding substitute teachers has created concerns about underqualified people filling the positions.

Presenting students with too many subs can compromise their education, said Nicole Galante, Stony Brook University's director of educational partnerships and innovation.

"The more consistent experience a child has in a classroom, the better the achievement," Galante said. "Teachers are not just concerned with teaching content. They are also managing a social and emotional learning environment."

Districts increasing pay

West Babylon, like many districts, has increased its per-day rate for substitutes from $125 to $150 for the first 10 days, and $175 after that. The district also has increased the additional pay for teachers who fill in for a class during their down time, from $25 per class to $40.

"The need for substitutes is across the board. I'm constantly sending messages to the local message board" asking for subs, Farrelly said.

Long Island school officials said they also have trouble finding teacher assistants and aides.

Teacher's aide Stephanie Neogra at home in Farmingville.

Teacher's aide Stephanie Neogra at home in Farmingville. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Stephanie Neogra is a teacher's aide for special education students at the James E. Allen Elementary School Annex at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Deer Park. She works one-on-one with a student.

When an aide is out, it's difficult to find a substitute, said Neogra, 56, of Farmingville.

'When we don't get a sub, we're doing double duty.'

Stephanie Neogra, a teacher's aide at the James E. Allen Elementary School Annex at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Deer Park

"It just leads to more work for those of us working," she said. "When we don't get a sub, we're doing double duty. We all pitch in to take care of other students."

Neogra added that she doesn't believe these situations impact the students.

"Students are getting what they need," she said. "They still get taken care of."

Gierasch, the Cold Spring Harbor superintendent, said she's lost 20 teacher aides since September, about a third of her staff of aides. Also, 13 substitute teachers didn't return for this school year, she said.

A teacher assistant, who can help with students' academic work, earns about $32,300 a year. A teacher aide, who focuses more on students' behavior, makes about $21,000 annually, she said.

"Employees say they're leaving because of family health issues, or they've moved on because of COVID, or they're going to retire," Gierasch said. "We feel like we're constantly in a hiring phase."

Nurses still hard to find

School nurses have become the front-line medics against the coronavirus, standing between the children and the possible spread of the disease.

Finding school nurses has never been easy, considering the pay can start at about $40,000 annually, and the pandemic has only made it harder, educators said.

'We have a vacancy that we've not been able to fill for two years.'

Barbara Jacobowitz, a school nurse at the Drexel Avenue School in Westbury

"We have a vacancy that we've not been able to fill for two years," said school nurse Barbara Jacobowitz, who's worked 10 years at the Drexel Avenue School in Westbury.

When a school nurse is out, she said, a nurse from another school may have to be available to cover that building.

"It puts extra stress on us in the building. We don't have that kind of cushion," she said.

Finding school bus drivers also remains a challenge for many districts, educators said.

"We continue to lose bus drivers," Farrelly said.

The West Babylon district's typical employment of 60 drivers has fallen to 45, she said. Some drivers are handling two routes instead of one, and bus supervisors also are taking a turn behind the wheel, she said.

Students, for their part, are sitting up to 15 minutes more on combined bus routes, she said.

Farrelly, also the head of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said the driver shortfall is widespread and the pool of drivers is small.

"We're all fighting for the same individuals," she said. "Someone will come to us and then leave for a better-paying job."

West Babylon is among those districts that employ their own bus drivers, but some districts work with private bus companies.

Corey Muirhead, executive vice president of Guardian Bus Co. in Oceanside, said many school bus drivers left their jobs when schools turned to remote learning in 2020. Bus drivers tend to be retirees, and many did not return due to virus concerns.

His company is back to full strength, having provided more flexible hours and bonuses for signing up, referring prospective drivers and staying on the job, Muirhead said.

Port Jefferson schools Superintendent Jessica Schmettan.

Port Jefferson schools Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. Credit: Barry Sloan

Jessica Schmettan, superintendent of the Port Jefferson school district, said her district has trouble finding enough custodians.

"My biggest worry is snowstorms, and not getting our buildings cleared," Schmettan said. "During the recent snowstorm, we brought in people on vacation."

The need for more custodians and maintenance workers has strained schools at a time when buildings need more thorough cleaning due to the virus, said Ben Carenza, the Long Island director of Teamsters Local 237, which represents these workers.

These workers make between $40,000 and $50,000 annually, he said.

"It's a totally different ballgame under COVID. They have a million checklists every night," Carenza said. "They are doing more with less. They're working double shifts. They burn out, they get hurt."

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