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‘We’re in a constant struggle,’ Pandemic adds to substitute teacher shortage in schools

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Classroom file photo

MT. HOREB (WKOW) -- As schools work through the challenges of the pandemic, they're also dealing with how to staff classes during the unusual school year.

Many districts are finding their pool of available substitute teachers is dwindling, as more are choosing not to risk exposure to the virus.

"Many of our substitutes, they're so devoted, but they're also folks who have retired from the system. So, they might be more in that vulnerable age that might preclude them from being able to support kids in person," said Steve Salerno, superintendent with the Mt. Horeb Area School District.

In Mt. Horeb, students have been learning from home this fall, but the district is considering a return to some in-person learning in November.

Salerno says the district typically relies on about 50 substitute teachers throughout the average school year, but they're not finding as many this year and could need even more, if full time educators can't work because of COVID-19.

"They live, just as most adults do, with needs and loved ones who might have special health conditions that need to be considered in determining whether or not they come back to work," Salerno told 27 News. "We didn't want to put one more obstacle in the way of our staff. We wanted them to focus on themselves and allow us to hopefully obtain enough substitutes that the decision is made, hopefully, a little easier for them."

Mt. Horeb isn't alone. Districts across Wisconsin are struggling to find enough subs to fill classrooms.

Dan Rossmiller, government relations director with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), says districts operating in person especially need a larger pool of options.

"Because if someone is exposed, has close contact with someone, they have to go into quarantine. If they have a positive test, they have to go into isolation. And then we need someone to take over that classroom, assuming that it can be done safely," he said. "So, we're in a constant struggle to find bodies with the right qualifications to go into our classrooms."

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction says there are nearly 2,000 fewer licensed substitute teachers in the state now than last year. 7,792 short-term subs held valid licenses as of October 8, compared to 9,531 for the 2019-2020 school year.

That adds to concerns over the potential more full-time teachers will decide to retire as the pandemic continues.

"What I understand is there's been a 22% increase in inquiries about what steps you have to go through if you're contemplating retiring," Rossmiller said, after consulting with experts in the field. "We're hearing anecdotally that the teachers union is counseling its members on how to get out of their contracts."

Districts are offering more to improve their chances at getting substitutes in the door, like full-time options or benefits.

Mt. Horeb is now opting to raise daily rates of pay to $215, to be competitive with other districts, ensuring they have enough staff to keep classes going safely.

"We want to do everything we can to set the conditions so that our staff has what they need and to feel comfortable in making a decision that's right for them," Salerno said.

The school board will vote soon on a possible move to hybrid classes for K-2 students, if health recommendations and COVID case numbers allow for the change.

Meanwhile, WASB is pushing lawmakers to take action to help districts find more teachers, asking for a change in pension rules for those who've retired and want to come back to teaching. Rossmiller says the state approved something similar for healthcare workers in April.

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