A nationwide shortage of substitute teachers is being felt here in San Mateo County, leading administrators to send out pleas to the community for support and forcing district governing bodies to consider more competitive pay rates.
“We, like every district, have had a shortage of subs for probably six years but this year is a lot. It’s worse than ever before,” Kevin Skelly, superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District, said.
Roughly 94,000 children attend classes at one of 23 public school districts in the county and each district, with different funding streams, is in competition with each other for classroom staffing.
The competition has caused some districts to increase their daily pay rates like at Skelly’s SMUHSD where substitute teachers can now earn $200 a day. Despite the recent increase, Skelly said district officials are considering once again raising rates for Mondays and Fridays to attract substitutes on days when teachers are more likely to call out.
Burlingame School District, currently faced with financial troubles and conflicts with permanent teaching staff over pay, offers substitutes $165 a day, Superintendent Chris Mount-Benites said. In need of substitutes, the district is considering a daily rate increase of its own that would match what SMUHSD offers.
“The district has financial struggles but you have to pay people,” Mount-Benites said. “It’s one more area taking money out of the budget for sure but you can’t have a class without subs.”
Even with the rate increase, though, Mount-Benites noted that the private education sector still poses strong competition given that the entities are capable of offering better rates. Jennifer Frentress, San Carlos School District superintendent, said the hiring pool has also been depleted after some districts used one-time funding to hire long-term subs.
And the need for staff in many other career fields has only added pressure to the search, Skelly said, who called the current state “one of the tightest job markets in the history of this country.”
Mount-Benites pointed to the region’s exorbitant cost of living as having pushed many potential candidates away, especially those who aren’t yet homeowners.
The return to in-person instruction has also contributed to the growing need for substitutes, Skelly said. Unlike pre-pandemic times, it’s frowned upon for teachers to show up for work with subtle cold or flu symptoms. Staff are now strongly encouraged to be more cautious to protect the health of school communities but with that policy comes the need for increased backup.
About a month into the school year, Skelly said teacher absences are already higher than normal. Without an adequate list of substitutes to call, administrators have been pulled away from other important duties to oversee classrooms.
“It’s a big challenge for the operation of the district,” Skelly said.
Alternatively, some teachers may be taking the risk of showing up to class with symptoms because they fear adding stress to their colleagues, Mount-Benites said.
He noted the past 18 months of adapting to remote or hybrid education systems have weighed on teachers who are now reluctant to burden others but the stress could lead to the need for additional mental health days, again increasing the need for substitutes.
Some districts have turned recruitment efforts toward school parents and retirees, broadcasting their pleas in weekly newsletters and district updates.
Such a plea was included in an update from Frentress last week, in which the administrator lobbied “moms, dads, grandparents, college-aged kids, retired neighbors” to fulfill a “critical need” for substitutes. The district currently offers a daily sub rate between $170 to $200 depending on the grade level the candidate is assigned to and contract duration, according to the district’s published salary schedule for 2019-20.
The call was successful in motivating inquiries though officials are still considering a potential rate increase to recruit more competitively for more candidates, she said in an email.
“Our community is wonderful at rallying to support our schools and we are so happy to have them contribute in this meaningful way,” Frentress said.
Like SCSD, Mount-Benites said the district has had some recruitment success for some positions since announcing the need for support in an August newsletter. Burlingame Councilmember Donna Colson has even answered the district’s call for support by signing up to sub for the year and encouraging other councilmembers to consider offering their time too, Mount-Benites said.
Despite the additional support, Mount-Benites said the district is still not in a comfortable staffing position.
“We’ve gotten quite a bit of traction but we’re still falling short,” Mount-Benites said.
SMUHSD has also had some success in finding substitutes, largely from retired teachers whose campus experience earns them additional pay. Still, Skelly said the district is eagerly recruiting additional staff.
“If we could get a sub in front of every kid and every class and not have to put administrators in there, that’s success,” Skelly said. “We’ve got teachers in classrooms and others don’t. … It’s an area I’m worried about but it’s having minuscule to no effect and other districts might have it worse.”
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