Shortage of Substitutes Strains Local School Districts

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A severe shortage of substitute teachers is hampering major local school districts and straining the region’s full-time teachers, according to a review of staffing reports by the News4 I-Team.

In eight major local school systems we requested data from, nearly two-thirds of approximately 64,000 substitute teacher requests went unfilled during the first two months of the 2021-22 school year.

A shortage of available subs, potentially fueled by a robust job market and COVID-19 fears, has forced school districts to scramble and bolster recruitment efforts.

“Great efforts have been made to ensure students are getting excellent instruction, but it has also put additional strain on staff during a truly difficult year,” said Brandon Oland, a spokesman for Frederick County Public Schools.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the I-Team requested school staffing reports for each school day in 2021. The data show the number of unfilled substitute positions steadily increased through the year. The staffing numbers, which were provided by D.C. Public Schools, Frederick County, Montgomery County, Charles County, Spotsylvania County, Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County schools, show overall only 38% of requests for subs were filled in recent months. Shortages were especially acute Friday, Sept. 17, which was between a religious holiday and a weekend. 

We need more subs. We need people to come in and help.

Ashley Salas, mother and substitute teacher

The lack of subs has been the source of growing concern among school employees and their unions. In public testimony before the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education, a representative of the district’s principals and administrators said teachers are frequently covering classes for their colleagues in the absence of subs. A representative of the county’s teachers union told the board, “The start of this school year finds students -- and their teachers -- increasingly anxious, weary and falling even further behind. (The school district) must free our teachers from lunch, recess and late bus duties. We need substitutes for classroom coverage when teachers become ill or are forced to quarantine.”

“Our teachers don't have the time that they need to meet all of their needs,” said Justin Heid, a longtime elementary school teacher in Frederick County.

Heid’s union has advocated for enhanced pay for substitutes to help better recruit them. The I-Team’s review of the school staffing records shows dozens of more unfilled substitute requests in Frederick County each day than during a similar period of time in 2016.

“We need more subs. We need people to come in and help,” said Ashley Salas, a Fairfax County mother who recently began substitute teaching, after hearing of the shortage and hoping to help serve Fort Belvoir Elementary School, where her children attend.

Salas said she has quickly become a high-demand commodity at the school, eagerly sought by Fort Belvoir teachers for fill-in duties.

"I felt like a celebrity because everybody was coming up to me like left and right, getting my number. And I was like, Well, everybody wants to be my friend,” Salas said.

The trend potentially is accelerating. The data reviewed by the I-Team showed a sharp increase in unfilled slots between early 2021 and late 2021 in both D.C. Public Schools and Spotsylvania County Public Schools.

“We are actively working to recruit more substitutes and have partnered with local colleges and universities’ career centers, promoted substitute teaching opportunities through social media, and shared information via local and virtual hiring fairs,” a D.C. Public Schools spokesperson said. “This year, we increased the total compensation package for our long-term substitute teachers and offered additional incentives for retired DCPS teachers.”

“A big part of the shortage is that many substitutes post COVID-19 didn't return when the school division returned to in-person instruction in the second semester of the 2020-21 school year,” said Rene Daniels, a spokeswoman for Spotsylvania County Public Schools.

Local school systems said they are enhancing their recruitment efforts. In Spotsylvania County, Daniels said, “Schools have sent autodialer messages and/or flyers out to their parent community to recruit new substitute teachers.”

Frederick County has increased sub pay and added a stipend for work performed on Mondays, Fridays and the day before a holiday as an incentive. D.C. Public Schools has also recently increased sub pay.

Teachers and administrators aren’t the only ones concerned about the growing shortage. Sumayyah Milstein, the mother of two Montgomery County Public Schools students, said she’s concerned fatigue and an overstretched workload will convince some veteran teachers to retire. Milstein said kids recognize the problem, too.

"I believe that a lot of our kids are a little bit more aware of what's going on and understanding that this is not normal," she said.

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.

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