Filling positions with substitute teachers on a daily basis amid the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a challenge this year for local school districts, including Conroe ISD. District data shows the gap between the number of substitutes needed and the number of substitute positions filled on a weekly basis has widened since the 2019-20 school year, prior to the pandemic’s onset.

For example, in the first week of 2020, 91% of substitute positions needed were filled in CISD, but in the first week of 2021, 69% were filled, according to district data. As of March reports, however, the data shows the district closer to filling 80% of positions each week.

CISD has a sufficient number of substitutes on deck to supply its needs—1,452 as of April, according to J.J. Daw, coordinator of human resources. But shorter notice given for absences as well as safety concerns related to COVID-19 have contributed to lower fill levels, according to district officials.

“I will say that we probably have had a little bit harder time to get substitutes to accept work,” said Jamie Bone, assistant director of human resources for CISD. “Some of that has to do with people might not feel well when they wake up [or] more last-minute absences being filled. We have plenty of people hiring on, but we have fewer this year on average that are accepting work each day.”

Despite this, the number of available substitutes has increased since vaccines became more widely available in March, she said.Beginning March 3, school and child care workers became eligible to be vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Vaccine eligibility was then expanded to anyone age 50 and older March 15 and to all adults March 29.

As of May 7, 1.29 million people in Harris County and 137,000 people in Montgomery County were fully vaccinated.

Adding incentives

Substitutes are crucial for the district’s operation, and part of ensuring coverage for teaching positions is ensuring safety protocols are followed and compensation is sufficient, officials said. Bone said substitutes were at the forefront of reopening efforts for the 2020-21 year.

“We worked every week to make sure we can open school safely. ... With the requirements from [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and local health [regulations] with regard to quarantining, we were going to have a need for subs,” Bone said.

District guidance for COVID-19 quarantine includes staying home until 14 days after someone has had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, and staying home until 10 days after a positive COVID-19 test, including if a person does not have symptoms, according to the district website.

Because of the number of substitutes CISD employs, it has also had to innovate to be able to get people through the hiring process, which has an in-person component when they sign the paperwork, officials said.

Bone said the strategy the district has adopted is to hold Zoom meetings for orientation and drive-thru for paperwork.“There are people with gloves and face shields out in the parking lot, and we walk up to the [car] window, so we don’t expose anybody,” she said.The district also approved a raise for substitutes Jan. 4, increasing daily pay for a certified teacher from $90 to $105, and adding an additional $10 on Mondays and Fridays. Pay for noncertified teachers moved from $85 to $95. Certified teachers have a valid Texas teaching certificate and an accredited college transcript with at least 60 hours of college credit.

Among other districts serving The Woodlands area, Magnolia ISD pays $80-$110 per day, and Tomball ISD pays $90-$100 per day for substitute teachers, an increase from rates paid the previous year.

Looking ahead

CISD officials have indicated the district expects to resume standard operations in the fall, with in-person learning and without requiring masks.As of late April, 84% of CISD students were in person, and 16% were remote. In neighboring districts also serving portions of The Woodlands area, 83% of students were enrolled in face-to-face instruction in TISD, and 95% were enrolled in face-to-face instruction in MISD at the start of the year’s final grading period.

“We’re like every school district in the state of Texas—our goal is to get back to normal as soon as we possibly can,” said Jeff McCanna, chief of human talent at TISD. “The goal that trumps every single goal ... is the safety of our kiddos and our staff.”