DETROIT — Michigan educators have a lengthy to-do list before reopening classrooms this fall amid a global pandemic.
Included on the list: Beef up the pool of substitute teachers.
"Without a question, that's going to be a challenge for us," said Randy Liepa, superintendent of the Wayne County Regional Educational Services Agency, which supports schools across Wayne County. "Remember, schools are vying for the same substitute teachers. If there is a need for additional substitute teachers, there are only so many that are out there."
Michigan schools and others across the nation struggle during normal times to find enough substitute teachers to fill classrooms when the assigned teacher calls in sick or must attend a training session. With increased teacher absences expected due to COVID-19, the need for subs is even greater.
"It is a mathematical certainty that we are not going to have enough teachers to reopen schools," said Nicola Soares, president of Kelly Education, the school staffing division of Troy-based Kelly Services.
Soares said that her company filled almost 4 million assignments last year at schools in 41 states. About 20% of those subs worked in classrooms where the school was unable to find a full-time teacher. Many of those spots still must be filled again this year as will other spots left vacant by teachers who are ill, quarantined, immune-compromised or caring for a loved one at home who is at high risk of infection, Soares said.
"I like to think that our substitute teachers, or rather any employees working within our school buildings, are going to be the next line of essential workers," Soares said.
Subs are paid, on average, $95 a day, Soares said, though that figure varies by location. In some places, they are paid as little as $65 a day, while in states with higher costs of living, they can get as must as $175.
'Mentally preparing for the unknown'
Clark Galloway runs Grand Rapids-based EduStaff, which provides substitute teachers to almost 500 school districts in Michigan. He said his firm has been surveying its entire pool of subs to gauge concerns about returning to classrooms amid COVID-19. It also plans beefed up training for subs on things like personal protective equipment, social distancing and recognizing symptoms of COVID-19, which may appear in students.
"We are going to do everything we can to train subs on the basic needs of understanding how to handle an environment," he said.
Other training is needed for subs to teach online, as all teachers were forced to do this spring when the pandemic forced the closure of school buildings.
"I'm mentally preparing for the unknown, but that's what subs do every day," said Mya Fullmer, who has subbed in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills schools for the past two years. "I think substitute teachers are actually well-suited for this pandemic. We start most workdays walking into a room full of unknowns: unknown lesson plan, unknown kids, unknown class behaviors. COVID-19 is just another unknown, but on a much larger scale."
In January, Kelly Education commissioned the EdWeek Research Center to survey more than 2,000 education leaders from across the country about the need for substitute help.
The survey found 60% of respondents said they were increasingly using substitutes to fill vacancies caused by a nationwide teacher shortage and 71% expected the need for subs to rise in coming years.
Almost two-thirds of the educators who responded to the survey said higher pay and more professional training were needed to maintain and grow the pool of subs.
In Michigan, subs must have at least 60 hours of college credit, though some districts require more. They also must undergo background checks.
'A surplus supply of talented people'
Soares, a former school teacher herself, said subs are the "quintessential gig workers." She expects it to be difficult to fill all the available spots, but she said there is a potential pool of applicants among people who have never subbed before but may have lost their jobs during COVID-19.
"We do have obviously, a surplus supply of talented people who are displaced or find themselves unemployed," she said, adding she would encourage people with subject matter expertise in their own fields to consider subbing.
"First and foremost, your country needs you," she said. "I would also say this is probably the best, the most noble profession that anybody can do."
Fullmer said the work is rewarding.
"The best subs have patience, enjoy being around kids and teens, and feel energized facing something new every day," she said. "Sometimes the work is babysitting, sometimes it's performance art, but on the best days you feel like a special guest speaker with the right experience and information to get kids excited about learning."