Facing substitute teacher shortage, HCPS central office staff roll up their sleeves

With substitute teacher ranks at about half of what normally would be needed – and teacher absences higher – central office staff are returning to classrooms across the city. Citizen file photo

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 17 to include some additional detail on incentives being offered to substitute teachers

By Eric Gorton, Contributor

Jeremy Aldrich is no stranger to working as a teacher, but it has been a few years since he made the move to the central office where he now serves as Harrisonburg’s director of teaching and learning.

Due to a shortage of substitute teachers in the schools, Aldrich is teaching again in addition to performing his administrative duties. In the past month, he said, he has been substituting most days, mainly at the middle school level but also at the elementary and high school levels.

“It was wonderful to spend a lot of my time subbing at the school where I used to work, Thomas Harrison Middle,” Aldrich said. “It has been great to see my colleagues there and to see how middle school has and hasn’t changed in the past decade. I also enjoyed getting to work in areas I haven’t had much experience in before, like special education and an elementary library.”

J.R. Snow, the city’s K-12 coordinator of visual and performing arts, has been substitute teaching too. During a three-week period in September, he spent quite a bit of his time at Keister Elementary School in a variety of roles, including pre-kindergarten, second grade, special education, English as a second language and fourth grade.

“I intend to continue to serve intermittently until our schools are able to fulfill substitute needs,” Snow said.

That could be a while.

Shawn Printz, director of human resources for the city schools, said the system has between 80-90 regular substitute teachers now, about half of what is needed.

Trying to maintain an adequate number of substitute teachers is always challenging, Printz said, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the difficulty.

“When we closed schools, we stopped using substitute teachers,” Printz said, and now the school system is facing a substitute teacher “supply chain issue.”

Many former substitute teachers have found other jobs and Harrisonburg City Schools has even hired some former substitutes as full-time teachers. The school system also has put more effort into getting its full-time teachers back into schools and abiding by health protocols than it has looking for substitute teachers. In addition, Printz has been busy trying to fill non-instructional positions, including janitors.

“At the time schools weren’t open, we weren’t hiring, we stopped. And then we had to start it again and we weren’t fully prepared for what it took,” Printz said. “It takes a while to get that going again.”

Aldrich said, “We went into this school year hoping for a return to normal, but the sub shortage and high absenteeism due to sickness and quarantine, plus the increased workload to meet the needs of students with learning gaps and those who are not able to come in person, have made this (anything but) a normal year.”

The school system prefers substitutes who have completed at least two years of college but it has had student teachers from James Madison University fill in some this fall, something that benefits both the schools and the student teachers, Printz said. He has also been in touch with Bridgewater College and plans to reach out to Eastern Mennonite University for substitute teaching help.

“This is something we need to do every year,” Printz said, noting he has received positive feedback from the JMU students.

Printz said the shortage effects all grade levels, but probably elementary a little more because elementary teachers don’t have as much planning time built into their days. In the high school, teachers have blocks of planning time, which helps if a teacher needs to cover for another. 

One incentive the school system has is offering prospective substitutes is paying retired teachers a little more. A job ad for full-time substitutes — only at the elementary level — on the City School’s website, lists the pay as $90 a day.

Another job ad for substitute teachers lists the daily pay as $110 for retired teachers, $90 for those with four years of college education and $85 for substitutes with two years of college. The long-term teacher substitute rate after 10 consecutive days is $129 a day.

Among the listings are three long-term substitute positions at Smithland Elementary: An English-as-a-second-language substitute, a special education substitute and a second grade substitute.

The city schools has also waived fees previously required of subs who apply, according to superintendent Michael Richards.

Substitute teachers in Harrisonburg Public Schools traditionally have been part-time employees.

Most still are, but the city may have to start considering adding to the ranks of its full-time substitutes as a way of easing shortages.

“That’s probably a direction we’re going to have to move, it’s a person who is embedded in the school that’s a full-time substitute,” Printz said.

Each of the city’s six elementary schools already has one full-time substitute teacher.

Printz praised the administrators who have stepped in to help.

“What we’re doing is we’re supporting others, supporting kids, supporting our teachers,” said Printz, although he has not yet stepped into a classroom.

Snow, a teacher for 22 years at the high school level, said he was a little uneasy going into an elementary school due to his lack of experience there, but now has a stronger understanding of the elementary teacher and student experience. 

“While it was difficult to balance my work and this need fully, I feel this move in a time of crisis allowed me to do my job to support, advocate and celebrate teachers and students in a new and positive way,” he said.

Cathy Soenksen, the secondary English language arts coordinator and former middle and high school English teacher, said her return to the classroom has been energizing and draining, “a healthy reminder of the demands placed on our teachers every day and of the sweet, fulfilling moments that keep refilling our tanks. Everyone is going above and beyond.”

Aldrich said, “I love our students so being with them more often has been great for me personally. I also want our teacher colleagues to feel supported and cared for during what many say is the hardest year they have ever experienced.”

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