Education

School districts hope December college graduates ease substitute staff shortage

Garfield Elementary School teacher Robin Nelson's classroom includes a grid that she made for in-person learning to help
Garfield Elementary School teacher Robin Nelson’s classroom includes a grid that she made for in-person learning to help children remember to stay in their area. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Eastern Iowa school districts are looking to December college graduates to alleviate some substitute staff shortages for the remainder of the school year.

As schools returned to in-person learning this fall, some substitutes opted not to return in-person as a safety precaution against the coronavirus.

School districts have struggled with shortages of teachers as well as paraeducators, bus drivers and food service workers.

“They’re just being cautious,” said Nick Proud, interim director of talent and human resources at the Iowa City Community School District. “We can understand that and appreciate it.”

There’s always a “fleet” of college graduates in December ready to enter the workforce, Proud said.

“We want to get as many of them subbing in our buildings as we can,” he said.

As with many districts, Iowa City has permanent substitutes in buildings who rotate to where they’re needed. Proud said they’re adding more permanent substitutes in the junior high schools, which have bigger buildings.

The most difficult gap to fill has been paraeducators, Proud noted.

The district has been fortunate this year with a fairly high substitute fill rate. The district had a 95 percent fill rate in September, 89 in October and 86 in November, dipping down to 80 percent right before moving to temporary virtual learning that month.

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That’s hiring about 200 substitutes each week, and between 300 to 400 during a week in November, Proud said.

“We have over 1,000 staff, 400 (staff absences) spread over five days, that’s still substantial, though,” he noted.

Staff absences account for everything from quarantine due to COVID-19 or a close contact with someone who has tested positive to maternity leave, Proud said.

School districts saw a dip in the substitute teacher fill rate in November when coronavirus cases surged across the state.

College Community School District reported a low 51 percent substitute teacher fill rate in November, compared to 73 percent in September and 63 percent in October.

The fill rate leveled off in December, with a 86 percent.

A shortage of substitute teachers is something school districts always have struggled with, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

In July, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced changes in qualifications to be a substitute teacher, to open the option to more people.

Anyone with an associate degree or 60 hours credit at a regionally accredited institution could be a substitute teacher, and the minimum age was reduced to 20 years old.

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Substitute teachers must complete the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners Approved Substitute Authorization Program to qualify.

Proud said this has been incredibly helpful during this time.

“Iowa City has a healthy amount of graduate students and other individuals who might have the flexibility to hop into our classrooms as they can,” he said.

“I want to give credit to our substitutes and all the people who made this hard year work.”

Cedar Rapids Community School District Superintendent Noreen Bush said the district “really does need substitutes.”

“We’re looking at early semester graduates for employment,” she said in a school board meeting in December.

If a class is in quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19, Bush said, learning doesn’t stop. Teachers are more flexible with how and when they can teach, and substitute teachers who don’t want to teach in-person are available virtually.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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