The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the nationwide substitute teacher shortage, but while many Cole County schools don't have as many substitute teachers available as they would like, substitute teacher coverage has improved or stayed the same throughout the school year.
Leaders at the Jefferson City School District and Blair Oaks R-2 School District in Wardsville said they have seen improvements in substitute teacher coverage since the fall, while coverage at Helias Catholic and Calvary Lutheran high schools in Jefferson City and in the Cole County R-1 (Russellville) and Cole County R-5 (Eugene) school districts has stayed about the same.
In September, the Missouri State Board of Education approved an alternative route for people to obtain a certificate to serve as a substitute teacher to help address the shortage of substitute teachers throughout the state. The alternative route allows people who have a high school diploma or equivalent to complete a 20-hour online training to be eligible for a substitute certificate. There is a $175 online training fee and a $50 application fee for the certificate.
Gov. Mike Parson's office recently approved an extension for state coronavirus relief funds to reimburse substitute teachers for these fees.
"We were very pleased to see the extension on the reimbursement of substitute certification fees," JC Schools Communications Director Ryan Burns said. "This will undoubtedly benefit our district and many others."
Jefferson City School District middle and high schools had significant staffing shortages in the fall due to teachers being quarantined and a lack of substitutes, causing the middle schools to transition to distance learning twice and the high schools once.
Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson middle schools experienced a staff fill rate of 30-50 percent in the fall, meaning 50-70 percent of absences were unfilled by substitute teachers and had to be covered by other staff in the building.
The district has seen an overall marked improvement in districtwide fill rates and substitute teacher coverage since late November, and it has continued to improve since returning from winter break, Burns said. The district fill rate has been at or above 70 percent since returning from winter break this month.
A decrease in COVID-19 cases and staff absences and a continuing increase in available and willing substitute teachers has helped "tremendously" with the district's fill rate, Burns said.
The change in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quarantine guidance from 14 days to 10 days without symptoms has also helped, she said.
"We feel we are in a much better position now than we were this fall in these areas," she said.
The Blair Oaks district has also seen a significant drop in COVID-19 cases, Superintendent Jim Jones said.
At the beginning of the school year, Blair Oaks had fewer substitutes than normal. Since then, the district has hired more substitutes, including some who were on the district's list in previous years.
"I don't know if we've added back our total, but we're in a better place right now than we were early in the year, and really it's just because of the number of teachers and staff that were either out in isolation or quarantine," he said.
Using the resolution to classify teachers as essential employees has also helped, Jones said.
The resolution gives teachers who are identified as close contacts of a COVID-19 case the option to return to work if they are showing no symptoms and if they follow Cole County Health Department and CDC guidelines such as wearing a surgical mask, social distancing and being screened regularly.
"That ultimately allowed us to not have to get into the substitute teacher pool quite as much as well," Jones said.
In the fall, JC Schools had planned to ask the school board to approve this resolution but rescinded the proposal due to staff concerns. The district does not currently see a need to revisit the resolution, Burns said.
The Russellville school district has seven substitute teachers on its list, a few less than normal, Superintendent Perry Gorrell said. This number has not changed since the beginning of the school year. The district has hired at least three extra staff members throughout the year because of the lack of substitutes available.
"We are having to hire people on and just keep them on as full-time employees, which doesn't allow you to have efficiency because there will be days that you don't need them. But that's the only way we can ensure that we have all our classes covered," Gorrell said.
These staff members also work with students who return to school after being quarantined to help catch them up on school work, he said.
The district had to use the teachers as essential workers resolution in November to stay open, Gorrell said, but a teacher has not been quarantined since then.
The Eugene district has had just as much trouble finding substitutes as any year, Superintendent Dawna Burrow said.
"I don't think we are having any special trouble this year other than what we've already had," Burrow said. "We've always had too few a number. But our teachers haven't missed nearly as much this year unless they absolutely had to for quarantine or something like that, so we really haven't had too much of an issue."
Unlike other schools, Helias Catholic High School has had many more substitutes available this year compared to previous years. Helias has 20-25 substitute teachers on its list and has had no problem finding substitutes, Principal Kenya Fuemmeler said. Normally, it only has two or three who are available when needed.
The school recruited many young Helias alumni who are college students taking classes online or taking a gap year, Fuemmeler said.
"We just put out several emails to our alumni and also used some social media channels, and we found a robust group of young alumni who were willing to joyfully come back and serve in that capacity," she said.
Calvary Lutheran High School has a hard time finding substitute teachers every year, but even more so this school year, Executive Director John Christman said.
Usually, part-time teachers at Calvary are used as substitutes since they are typically available more often than the substitute teachers on the school's list, Christman said. About half of Calvary teachers work part time.
"About 95 percent of the time we're doing our substituting in-house," he said. "I think I can count on one hand how many subs outside of this building have worked at Calvary this school year."
While some public schools, including JC Schools, use a service to find substitute teachers, many schools have to call substitute teachers they have on a list to see if they're available. Substitute teachers have more reliable and consistent substitute opportunities if they're signed up with a service, so they're more likely to be available, Christman said.
Calvary has about 10 substitute teachers on its list, but many of them are rarely available, Christman said.
It's much easier to ask a part-time teacher to fill in when they're not teaching, he said. They often come in earlier or stay later to fill in and are compensated as a substitute.
"They know their peers, they know the other teachers' expectations they have in their classrooms, and having that internal kind of understanding and knowledge, I think, just makes for a better, more seamless substituting experience," Christman said. "I continue to just want to celebrate the teachers that we have and the extra mile that they go to for the sake of our students."