Previously, when Cordelia Watson received a robocall to replace teaching at the Los Angeles Unified School District, there was a specific script that included the name of the teacher she would be replacing for the day.
Now, she says, there’s so much turnover and so many teachers reporting themselves sick or in quarantine with COVID, that the system can’t keep up. Messages often exclude any mention of a particular teacher.
“The call comes in the morning and the voice says, ‘We have an assignment for … a vacancy,'” Watson told NPR. “This means that the current teacher, the one who took the training, is no longer working for the district and has not been replaced.”
Watson, who is 25 and an unaccredited substitute with a theater arts degree, says “vacation” calls are on the rise as burnt-out teachers and experienced substitutes abandon the field. Meanwhile, replacement requests have gone from one or two days on a single mission to 20 days.
These calls fill her with anxiety and raise a number of red flags about what she can expect as a substitute in the nation’s second-largest school district. Unfortunately, Watson says, she doesn’t see an end to the calls anytime soon as the district continues to implement weekly testing for all staff and students.
This week – the first after the winter break – more than 65,000 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and it’s forcing officials to scramble to find substitute teachers and other staff.
The same is true for school systems across the country facing unprecedented shortages of qualified teachers. On top of all this, the omicron variant and the continued fallout of the winter surge is pushing public school leaders to the brink of despair. Some have even called on parents with no education experience to take on long-term replacement assignments.
The current crisis is also forcing local and state officials to temporarily rewrite rules to make it easier to hire replacements and other needed personnel.
Lawmakers rewrite rules to keep kids in school
Earlier this week in California, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an executive order that speeds up the hiring process and gives schools more flexibility in staffing decisions, including allowing substitute teacher contracts to be extended and removing barriers for recently retired teachers to return to the classroom. The order expires at the end of March.
Newsom said he hopes the move will “keep our kids safe in person for the rest of the year and through the next three to six weeks or so.”
In Kansas, state officials are now open to teens with no college experience taking on students. The state Board of Education announced on Wednesday that it had lowered the requirements for obtaining an emergency substitute teaching license as a “last resort.”
Under the new statement, substitute applicants will not be required to have completed at least 60 credit hours per semester at a regionally accredited college or university, as they currently do. They will need to have a high school diploma, be at least 18 years old, pass a background check, have a verified commitment from a district for employment, and submit a completed application to the state Department of Education .
The measure is due to expire on June 1.
As of this week, Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson said several school districts are about to renew their closures without enough staff to operate.
Across the Kansas City metro area, teachers and administrators are already sacrificing their breaks and lesson planning times to cover vacancies. It’s a temporary stopgap that schools across the country have adopted in recent months.
Watson called the current situation “the tip of the iceberg”, adding, “We’re just at the tip of the situation as we see it. That I think will help.”
As KUT’s Claire McInerny reported, school districts in Texas — where schools can only be funded if they offer an in-person option — the Austin Independent School District “received 100 more sub-applications the last week compared to the same week last year”. The nearby school district of Hays Consolidated has exhausted its meager rosters of substitutes, and officials are now asking parents to be substitutes.
The Florida Sun Sentinel reports that the Palm Beach County School District had 348 teaching vacancies as of Oct. 4, up from 221 open positions in 2020.
The problem is so severe in Broward County that in November, students in several teacherless classes were herded together in cafeterias, auditoriums or gymnasiums. In such circumstances, it is impossible to provide instructions, so students are given lessons to follow on their own or watch a movie.
“We have these vacancies on top of the shortage of substitutes who still don’t want to come in and do education during COVID,” Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County Teachers’ Union, told the Sun Sentinel.
Oregon education officials are trying to attract new replacements by scrapping college degree requirements. The new rules also waive fees for prospective educators putting all associated expenses on the shoulders of the hiring school district or charter school. Applicants must pass a background check and submit to fingerprinting. Emergency licenses obtained in the state will be valid for six months.
Substitutes are not babysitters
But just having an adult in each class isn’t the same as having a teacher in the class, Watson said.
“It doesn’t mean the students are actually going to learn anything. It just means they have a babysitter,” she said.
Watson says she’s glad the governor stepped in, but doesn’t expect the recently announced changes to have a big impact on LA Unified. Even before the latest round of statewide rule changes, the district was already asking replacements to extend contracts for up to 20 days in any given class.
“I go to classrooms where the students have never had a credentialed teacher and we’re at the start of the second semester,” she said.
This constant disruption has put a lot of stress on the children and adults who are sent out to try and keep them on track. Just before winter break, Watson was called in for a three-week assignment in a high school art class with over 40 students at certain times.
“I had no idea what they knew or what they were doing and I was supposed to give them their final grade. It’s just an impossible situation,” she said, exasperated.
The constant turnover of new people also causes serious behavioral problems, she observed, noting that managing the classroom has become one of the most difficult aspects of the job for her and many of her colleagues.
“They’re different now,” Watson says, describing the kids she’s taught over the past two years. “They are exuberant and they are difficult.”
“Thursday, different school staff came and sat in the classroom and supported me because it was…it was too much for me,” she said.
“It was definitely not what I signed up for when I first applied,” Watson said, explaining that her first day of work was two weeks before the statewide shutdown in March 2020. .
She hung on as educators were called upon to adapt to remote learning. She hung on as students returned to in-person learning. But now she says: “I think it’s time to have an honest conversation about what parents want their children to get from school. Do they really want them to get an education? is not the case.”