Washington, D.C.-area schools are suffering an acute shortage of substitute teachers, as the 2017-2018 school year begins, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.
The problem has stretched thin the educators of the region’s largest public school districts and risks disrupting classes, planning and grading.
School district staff attendance records obtained by the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the substitute shortage grew in severity during 2017. In February 2017, Montgomery County Public School records show the district suffered a 20 percent shortage in the substitutes needed to fill the vacancies of all absent teachers.
In winter 2017, Prince George’s County Public Schools were hundreds of substitutes short for many school days, according to the records. The problem peaked on January 26, 2017, when Prince George’s schools fell 300 substitutes short of the number needed to cover all absences.
Human resources records obtained from Frederick County, Maryland, show the shortfall of available substitutes began immediately in the 2016-2017 school year, including a lack of substitutes on the first day of school in the fast growing district.
The I-Team found Fairfax County Public Schools hired more than 140,000 daily substitute teachers during a six-month span in late 2016 and early 2017, yet still suffered shortfalls. According to a newsletter distributed by Shrevewood Elementary School in May, “County-wide, we are experiencing a significant substitute teacher shortage. We have made it work this year, but certainly not without the support of teachers, instructional assistants, students, and parents.” The newsletter said, “On at least two occasions, we have been so short-staffed that we have had teachers cover a full class in addition to their own.”
Teachers, administrators and union leaders told the I-Team the shortage is causing a daily scramble for educators at all grade levels. Full-time teachers are sacrificing planning periods, grading sessions and staff meetings to cover vacant classes of colleagues. Administrators are being pulled from assignments to help fill gaps, according to several principals and teachers who spoke to the I-Team.
“We have to pull staff that have other jobs they should be doing, to cover kids and cover classes that need to be covered,” said Melissa Dirks, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association.
The patchwork of staffing needed to cover classes disrupts class lessons and can trigger an increase disruptive behavior, according to educators who spoke with the I-Team.
The problem drains staff and students, said Justin Heid, a teacher at Walkersville Elementary School in Frederick County. “It’s a really hard job to come into somebody else’s classroom," he said. "It’s a lot of work to come in and teach somebody else's kids.”
Substitute teachers said low pay and high stress experiences limit the number of candidates for sub positions. The hourly rate ranges from $10.86 for some substitute positions in Prince George’s County to $14 in Fairfax County.
Union officials said pay rate for substitutes has not maintained pace with increasing housing costs in the D.C. region.
Harriett Sims, a longtime substitute at Northwood High School in Montgomery County, said she would easily find work for all 180 days of the school year because of the growing shortage. “If I wanted to, I could work every day," she said. "Every single day."
Northwood High principal Mildred Charley-Greene said administrators helped cover teaching vacancies throughout the 2016-17 school year and expect to do so again in 2017-18. “By any means necessary, we make sure that we continue to have the classes run as they should,” Charley-Green said.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane; produced by Rick Yarborough; shot by Steve Jones, Jeff Piper and Lance Ing; and edited by Steve Jones.