Sophomores stream into their classroom at Clyde-Savannah Elementary School, bags of colorful books in tow, taking off their winter coats, opening their lockers.
“Where is the teacher?” a girl asks through her face mask. “She is out,” replies the replacement. The child lets out a frustrated sigh before saying, “Again?
It is a scene that is repeated every day in the schools of the region and the country. At least Clyde-Savannah was able to find a submarine, which can no longer be taken for granted. Covid-19 has compounded the already acute shortage of people willing to come into class, drive a bus or perform other services to keep doors open when regular staff need time off.
When too many people are absent and replacements cannot be found, school districts are forced to switch to remote learning for the day or several days. Earlier in January, it happened in Clyde-Savannah. This also happened this month in the districts of Midlakes, Waterloo and South Seneca, among other places in the region.
“It’s impossible to find submarines,” said Waterloo Superintendent Terri Bavis. “We have very few replacements and have several probationary (teacher) positions that are vacant and unfilled. When we don’t have enough subs, which is every day, all staff have to step in to help cover those who are out.
“The submarine shortage, which was an issue before Covid, has been exacerbated by Covid, (and) not just teaching submarines. We have very few sub-contractors in all areas of the operation, including bus drivers and monitors, cleaners, and we have no school sub-nurses.
One of the common denominators of under-shortage is that these jobs typically fall to older workers. They are less willing to go to schools in the time of Covid because they fear getting sick. The retired teacher who spent a few days a week or a month supplying is now much less likely to venture into a school setting, officials from several local districts noted.
Heather Swanson, spokesperson for the City of Geneva School District, said the pandemic has certainly made the problem of replacements worse. Staff who catch Covid themselves or are quarantined, or have to stay home because their own children’s schools are on distance learning, have increased the need for subs while their availability has dwindled. She said her district is definitely impacted by the absence of retired teachers from the pool.
“Replacement is a demanding job that requires flexibility, both in terms of schedule and talent,” Swanson said. “Retirees, especially retired teachers, often make up a significant portion of the pool, but many in this population have been understandably cautious during the pandemic.”
Steve Sherwood, 69, of Canandaigua has been an underwater at Midlakes for four years and has continued to work thanks to Covid. His wife, Rhonda, is a district math teacher. When he was looking for something to do after retiring from the world of school yearbooks and taking pictures, she suggested replacing him. Steve said replacements are in such high demand that he worked 164 of the possible 180 days the second year he replaced, and the days he missed were his choice.
One of the differences since Covid is that it often substitutes for many different topics in one day as the district has to cover multiple vacancies.
Last week, Sherwood looked for subcontract work in Clyde-Savannah because he heard the rate for certified subs was $175 a day. He’s a certified teaching assistant, not a teacher, so he wasn’t qualified, but CS pays $150 for non-certified subs, which is one of the best rates in the area.
Statewide except New York, all that is required to qualify is a high school diploma, although some districts may require more credentials, such as a specific number of college credits or a bachelor’s degree. And all districts require a fingerprint background check. In New York, a replacement certificate is mandatory.
Clyde-Savannah is using Covid aid money for higher sub-rates in hopes of making it more competitive and getting more people to sub-contract. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
At the beginning of January, the district organized a remote learning day because there were not enough subs. Midlakes, which pays $115 a day for certified teachers and $110 for uncertified, also had a day last week that was off for the same reason.
Clyde-Savannah Superintendent Mike Hayden said his district is suffering from a shortage of vacancies because his retirees, like in many districts, make up a large portion of the under-roster, are reluctant because of Covid. He said the sub pay hike is temporary, but he fears the need for subs won’t change even when Covid ebbs.
“I think one of the biggest reasons for the shortage of substitute teachers is that fewer people are pursuing education in general,” he said. “It may have been caused when our economy was in recession years before the pandemic hit. Many teachers were fired, and the fear of not getting a teaching job after graduation was less than encouraging for those considering the profession.
He said the district continues to receive fewer applications each year when it advertises teaching vacancies.
It’s not just the teachers. Howard Dennis, the Penn Yan Central Schools superintendent, said filling bus driver spots is another issue.
“Bus drivers become a much more critical situation. Not just anybody can jump on a bus and drive it,” he said. “We have mechanics, dispatchers and the transportation manager who drive regularly. We have hired a full-time replacement on a daily basis. We also have backup plans and contingency plans in case we fall below the required number.
Dennis said Covid-related absences and needs have further accentuated replacement shortages.
“I’m not sure everyone always thinks about replacing when they’re thinking about working,” he said. “It’s not always consistent and it doesn’t traditionally come with benefits. These are essential characteristics for most job seekers. We get very creative in placing substitutes, covering classes and taking advantage of the people we have. We have a group of very dedicated replacements and our staff step in when needed. We are truly grateful for all the work they do.
Penn Yan has also hired contract replacements who come in every day and know they will have work.
In Seneca Falls, Superintendent Jeramy Clingerman said the district is “lucky to have very dedicated back-ups who are with the district on a regular basis.
“For years, there were more teachers than positions available and many of these professionals looking for a full-time position were stepping in to pay the bills, gain experience and/or get a foothold in the gate with certain districts,” Clingerman said. “With the shortage of employees in all positions in a district, finding replacements is all the more difficult. We had several students at home between replacement semesters, which was a big help.
“We are covering the shortage with everyone in the district to help out,” he added.
Newark superintendent Susan Hasenauer said there were more than 90 people on the district’s sublist. However, after a “deep dive”, she discovered that 80 of them were not active. She said what usually happens when there aren’t enough subs is that everyone from teachers to support staff steps in to fill the gaps.
“When a teacher has a free period or a teaching assistant is free, we put them in a classroom,” she said. “It’s beyond everyone else, and it seems like we’re not using people in the most logical way, but we’re trying to be thoughtful.”
Hasenauer joined the district in February 2021; she said it had been a rough year all around.
“When there are up to 19 people in a building, it’s hard not to walk away,” she said.
She agrees with Hayden that part of what is impacting the under-shortage is an overall shortage of teachers.
“There just aren’t as many students entering the teaching field,” she said. “Even in Monroe County, where salaries are a bit higher, there are vacancies.”
Perception of social media, she learned, is critical to how someone considering working in a certain school district makes a decision. Because of this, she said Newark’s website will be redesigned this summer “to sell who we are.” She said potential employees, especially young people, use social media to see where they stand and research districts.
Purging the sub-roster and rebuilding and rethinking the way recruiting is done, she hopes, is a way, eventually, to solve the sub-problem.
Bavis just wants a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Covid is eating up most of my time these days,” she said. “Switching to remote learning is an absolute last resort. It is disruptive to families, students, staff and all aspects of running a school. Unfortunately, there are times when we have no choice. .
Penn Yan’s Dennis: “Any time the student doesn’t have that highly qualified teacher in front of them, it’s not ideal.”
Clingerman said the impact of Covid and the lack of submarines is having an effect on everyone.
“Instruction is affected when you have to move people at the last minute to cover lessons,” he said.
Sherwood said Covid had definitely changed the way pupils treat school, but he said it was difficult to gauge exactly what impact this would have in the future.
“It’s hard to put a factor in it,” he says, “but for the staff, they’re at their wit’s end. There is so much more to do.