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No substitute: Schools struggle to find coverage for classes

March 30, 2019

CARBONDALE, Pa. (AP) — As a new college graduate 20 years ago, Robert Mehalick competed for jobs as a substitute teacher.

Today, the superintendent of the Carbondale Area School District struggles to find enough substitutes to fill absences in his classrooms.

On many days in northeast Pennsylvania schools, administrators search for class coverage. Some schools combine classes, leading to 50 students or more in the same room. Principals pull teachers from planning periods, often at an added expense. Students sometimes go without art, music or gym class.

“When we don’t have a class covered, that’s academic time missed by our kids,” Mehalick said.

Officials cite low pay and a sharp decline in newly certified teachers as causes for the shortage. Most districts now use an agency to fill vacancies to avoid paying pensions and health insurance. With substitutes making an average of between $80 and $100 per day, many new college graduates with student debt cannot afford loan repayments by solely substituting.

“For that amount of money a day, people aren’t really interested,” Valley View Superintendent Rose Minniti, Ed.D., said. “We end up having days without substitutes.”

Daily struggle

For the last five years, districts have struggled to find substitute teachers. The problem has only worsened.

Starting in 2015, many districts started using Kelly Educational Staffing to find subs and attempt to save money.

The schools pay Kelly a daily rate, plus a service fee of around 30 percent. Districts set their pay rates. Substitutes do not receive health insurance or other benefits from districts.

As pension costs grew and the Affordable Care Act brought new regulations for employee insurance, districts opted to pay Kelly instead, Abington Heights Superintendent Michael Mahon, Ph.D., said.

Abington Heights pays Kelly $108.80 per sub per day, with $80 going to the sub and the rest to service fees. Going with the agency allowed the district to eliminate a full-time secretary in the human resources department, who received a salary and benefits of about $68,000 per year, Mahon said. From the start of the school year through the end of February, the district has paid Kelly $184,253.

Old Forge still finds substitutes on its own, but many days, there are none to be found. The district pays subs $96.10 per day.

“We have less and less,” Superintendent John Rushefski said. “The availability of subs is not out there. They’re just not there.”

When teachers miss their planning periods to cover another class, most union contracts call for those teachers to receive additional compensation — usually about $20 per period.

Two years ago, North Pocono increased its sub rate to $100 a day for certified teachers. The district still struggles with vacancies, with a fill rate — or the number of vacancies covered in a day — as low as 40 percent, Superintendent Bryan McGraw said.

“When you look at a kid, especially at an elementary level, having several different teachers throughout the day, that lack of consistency throws them out of their routine,” McGraw said. “At the secondary level, the subject level expertise is lacking.”

Rosemary Boland, president of the Scranton Federation of Teachers, said when the district cannot find a sub, teachers are sometimes forced to combine classes.

Large class sizes often lead to behavior problems, she said. Some teachers miss daily planning periods to cover other rooms.

“If this was once in a while, no one would complain,” Boland said. “But this is daily.”

Efforts to reach Scranton Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., were unsuccessful last week.

Lakeland pays Kelly $115.50 per sub, and the substitute receives $80 per day. On Thursday, the district only had 50 percent of the substitutes it needed. Lakeland automatically has two subs sent to each of its buildings every day. Usually, that’s not enough.

“It puts a lot of stress and strain on the teachers and the administrators,” Superintendent William King said.

To find more substitute teachers, Kelly advertises on career-focused websites, recruits at local colleges, engages on social media and hosts job fairs, according to a statement from the Michigan-based company, which has an office in Pittston.

The agency provides training and professional development to employees and offers a substitute of the year recognition program.

Decline in teachers

Experts partially blame the substitute teacher shortage on a smaller pool of new graduates looking for teaching jobs. During the 2012-13 school year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education issued 18,957 teaching certifications. Just five years later, during 2017-18 school year, that number dropped to 6,918. New graduates seeking full-time jobs often work as substitute teachers for experience and to make connections.

Concerns over job stress and stability have led many young people to consider different careers, officials said.

“Districts have become lean and mean,” King said. “Anywhere you’re not required or mandated to have positions, we’ve tried to eliminate most through attrition. When superintendents make those decisions, or boards, it’s not necessarily a decision they want to make.”

While Mehalick, the Carbondale superintendent, said there are tremendous benefits and rewards to being an educator, starting salaries can be unappealing compared to other professions.

Mid Valley Superintendent Patrick Sheehan agreed.

“People are realizing it’s a very difficult field anymore,” he said. “It’s not extremely lucrative. There are quite a bit of demands on the profession that have increased over the years. Unfortunately, people are looking at different opportunities.”

The statewide certification decline is not a surprise to Joseph Polizzi, Ph.D., associate professor of education and educational leadership at Marywood University.

The teaching profession now requires more than a passion for educating children, he said. At a growing rate, teachers must be politically savvy and have a desire to help children’s social and emotional wellbeing.

To find more substitutes, he suggests that schools invite people from the community to information sessions to learn about the schools’ mission. He also suggests that school officials take the time to develop relationships with substitutes.

“Know them as people, and not just someone who can come in for the day,” Polizzi said.

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Kelly substitutes must have:

— A teaching certificate in the state of Pennsylvania or bachelor’s degree in any discipline.

— Successful completion of Department of Education clearance requirements.

— National sex offender screening.

— Two reference checks.

— Completion of Kelly Teacher Match online training.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2HQJdgq

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Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/

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