Fulfilling an increased demand for substitute teachers amid the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a challenge this year for Tomball and Magnolia ISDs, district officials said. District data shows the gap between the number of substitutes needed and the number of substitute positions filled has widened since the 2019-20 school year, prior to the pandemic’s onset.

For example, in February 2020, Tomball ISD was unable to fill an average of eight substitute teacher positions each day, whereas in February 2021, an average of 17 positions were left unfilled daily, according to district data. In Magnolia ISD, the district had an average of 10 positions unfilled daily in February 2020, whereas 22 positions were unfilled on average in February 2021.

With teachers out for longer periods of time and reduced applicant pools due to COVID-19, districts have adapted by implementing new recruitment strategies and programs to help meet the need, district officials said.

“When you see teachers getting quarantined because they’ve come in close contact with a COVID[-19] case—and sometimes this happens multiple times to a teacher—you can imagine the consequences to a campus where several of these teachers are out,” said Rob D’Amico, spokesperson for the Texas American Federation of Teachers, noting districts statewide are seeing similar demands for substitutes.

In a Feb. 8 board workshop, TISD Chief of Human Talent Jeff McCanna said the district often combines classes or reallocates existing staff when a substitute is unavailable to fill a position. McCanna said the risk of transitioning into remote learning as a result of not having teachers to cover classes continues to be a reality for campuses.

A need for substitutes

Teachers in TISD can be out for up to 10 days if they test positive for COVID-19, according to TISD Substitute Coordinator Tiffany Cagle, during which time teachers are not working with students remotely or in person, but rather recovering.

“If they are sick, we want them home,” Cagle said. “We care about our employees; we want them to get well.”

Additionally, MISD Director of Human Resources Sam Bell said applicant pools for substitute teaching positions have also decreased, with some individuals being less willing to take on jobs due to concerns about contracting COVID-19.

McCanna said older applicants have been less likely to take substitute positions, with retired teachers traditionally making up a large portion of substitute teachers in TISD.

“A lot of retired teachers have not been comfortable going back into a classroom with the threat of COVID,” D’Amico said. “That’s another issue districts have faced—not having that pool of retired teacher substitutes.”

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.

In addition to substitutes, districts have also seen a need for positions such as food service technicians and bus drivers. With more students returning to in-person instruction, MISD Director of Child Nutrition Kimberly Ohlendorf said the child nutrition department has had more mouths to feed.

“These ladies are extremely important to the children,” she said. “Sometimes, they’re the first staff member that the children see. Serving them a hot meal is a wonderful way to take care of them and make them feel good about coming to school and learning.”

In addition to food service technicians, MISD and TISD officials emphasized the need for bus drivers during March and April meetings.

Adjusting to demand

As a result of the growing need for substitutes, McCanna said TISD has adopted new methods to recruit more substitute teachers. For example, when applicants are not hired as teachers, TISD now recommends those applicants to interview for substitute teaching positions.

Additionally, McCanna said the district has started to reach out to university students enrolled in virtual field experience classes with TISD, as many of these students meet the college requirements to fulfill a substitute teaching position with the district.

To substitute for a teacher in TISD, the district requires applicants to have at least 60 hours of college credit.

In MISD, applicants for substitute teachers must have a high school diploma or GED, MISD Director of Communications Denise Meyers said.

Bell said MISD has adapted by hiring full-time substitutes at school campuses in an initiative implemented at the start of the second semester. MISD high schools received five full time-substitutes; junior high schools received three; and elementary schools received two.

“That has really helped each of those campuses,” Bell said. “We’ve heard a lot of praise on those subs and the job that they’re doing.”

Depending on certifications, MISD offers $80-$110 daily pay for substitutes with an added $10 on Fridays. TISD pays $90-$100 per day for substitute teachers.

In a March 9 meeting, TISD trustees approved a temporary pay adjustment for substitutes to receive an additional $25 for jobs taken on Mondays and Fridays from March 15 through the end of the 2020-21 year.

To better prepare for staff resignations amid the pandemic, MISD implemented a one-time early resignation incentive program for employees who submitted a resignation letter from Nov. 13-March 31.

With the initiative, full-time, campus-based employees must fulfill their current school year contract to receive a one-time $500 incentive payment and can also be refunded a maximum of 10 leave days at a rate of $100 per day.

Meyers said the program gave the district more time to hire new employees for the fall.

“If we know that spring is the hiring season, ... we want to be able to have the best applicant pool to fill those positions versus waiting until June or July to start filling them,” Meyers said.

Looking ahead

With more students having enrolled in face-to-face learning throughout the 2020-21 school year, districts are looking forward to resuming standard operations in the fall.

District data shows 83% and 95% of students were enrolled in face-to-face instruction, respectively, at TISD and 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,” McCanna said. “The goal that trumps every single goal ... is the safety of our kiddos and our staff.”

According to D’Amico, some substitutes, such as those more at risk for COVID-19, have voiced concerns about in-person instruction during the pandemic. Without substitutes stepping in to take over classrooms while teachers are out, districts risk bigger classroom sizes, reallocated staff and transitioning into remote learning, district officials said.

However, McCanna said this challenge could change over time as COVID-19 vaccinations continue.

With all Texas adults now eligible for vaccination, more than 1 million people in Harris County and 108,000 people in Montgomery County are fully vaccinated as of April 20, according to the counties.

In addition to offering a free COVID-19 testing center for employees, MISD has partnered with local entities to distribute vaccines to employees, and substitutes are among those who are interested.

“We do have substitutes that are wanting to get vaccinated, which is great for us because then they’re going to be more comfortable with going in and filling in that classroom,” Meyers said.

D’Amico said he is hopeful that employees and substitutes will be more comfortable in the fall as employees get vaccinated.

“It’s going to provide a whole new comfort level for teachers and substitutes,” D’Amico said. “We’re hoping that by next fall, there’ll be a much higher comfort level for teachers in general and substitutes to get back to campus.”