Gregory Bull / AP
It once happened that when Cordelia Watson was automatically called to replace a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there was a specific scenario that included the name of the teacher she would represent for the day.
Now, he says, there is such fluctuation and so many teachers who are sick or quarantined with COVID that the system does not catch up. Reports often rule out any mention of a particular teacher.
“The call comes in the morning and the voice says, ‘We have a task for … a vacancy,'” Watson told NPR. “This means that the real teacher, the one with the training, no longer works for the district and has not been replaced.”
Watson, who is 25 years old and an uncredited substitute with a degree in the performing arts, says the number of “vacancies” is increasing as burnt teachers and experienced substitutes have left the field. Meanwhile, completion requirements have increased from one or two days to one task to 20 days.
These calls fill her with anxiety and raise a number of warnings about what to expect as a substitute in the country’s second largest school district. Unfortunately, Watson says, she sees no end to the phone calls any time soon as the district continues to introduce weekly testing for all staff and students.
This week – the first after the winter break – more than 65,000 students and staff were tested positive on COVID-19, and officials are trying to find substitute teachers and other staff.
The same is true for school systems across the country, which face an unprecedented shortage of qualified teachers. In addition to all this, the omicron variant and the continuing impact of the winter increase are pushing the leadership of public schools to the brink of despair. Some have even called on uneducated parents to take on long-term surrogate assignments.
The current crisis is also forcing local and state officials to temporarily rewrite the rules to make it easier to hire substitutes and other necessary staff.
Lawmakers are rewriting rules to keep children in school
Earlier this week in California, Governor Gavin Newsom announced an executive order that speeds up the recruitment process and gives schools more flexibility in staffing decisions, including allowing extension of contract with substitute teachers and removing barriers for recently retired teachers to return to class. The order expires at the end of March.
Newsom said it hoped the move would “keep our children safe in person for the rest of the year and manage the next three to six weeks.”
In Kansas, government officials are now open to caring for students with no college experience. The State Board of Education announced on Wednesday that it had reduced the requirements for obtaining an extraordinary substitute teachers’ license as a “last resort”.
According to the new statement, substitute applicants will not be required to complete at least 60 semester credit hours from a regionally accredited college or university, as is currently the case. They will have to have a high school diploma, be at least 18 years old, pass an examination, have a verified commitment from the district to employment and submit a completed application to the state education department.
The measure is due to expire on 1 June.
Kansas Commissioner for Education Randy Watson said this week that several school districts are on the verge of resuming closure without enough staff to operate.
Across the Kansas City subway area, teachers and administrators are already sacrificing their breaks and lesson planning periods to cover vacancies. It is a temporary brake that has been adopted by schools across the country in recent months.
Watson called the current situation “the tip of the iceberg” and added, “We’re just on the edge, as we see it. I think it will help.”
According to Claire McInerny of KUT, school districts across Texas – where schools cannot be funded unless they provide a personal opportunity – the Austin Independent School District “had 100 more applications for subordinates last week compared to the same week last year.” The nearby Hays Consolidated School District has exhausted its thin substitutes, and officials are now asking parents to be substitutes.
The Florida Sun Sentinel reports that the school district in Palm Beach County had 348 vacant teaching positions as of October 4, compared to 221 open positions in 2020.
The problem is so serious in Broward County that in November, students from several classes without teachers were stored together in canteens, lecture halls or gyms. In such circumstances, it is not possible to provide any tuition, so students are given a job to complete themselves or told to watch a film.
“We have these vacancies in addition to the lack of deputies who still don’t want to come and deal with education during COVID,” said Sun Sentinel Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County Teachers’ Union.
Oregon education officials are trying to attract new substitutes by dropping higher education requirements. The new rules also waive fees for potential educators who pass on all related expenses to hiring school districts or charter schools. Applicants must be screened and subjected to fingerprinting. Emergency licenses obtained in the state will be good for six months.
Substitutes are not nannies
But having an adult in every class is not the same as having a teacher in the class, Watson said.
“It doesn’t mean students actually learn anything. It just means they have a nanny,” she said.
Watson says he’s glad the governor has intervened, but doesn’t expect the recently announced changes to have a big impact on LA Unified. Even before the last round of nationwide rule changes, the district had already asked deputies to extend a maximum of 20-day contracts in any given class.
“I go to classrooms where students have never been assigned an accredited teacher and we are at the beginning of the second semester,” she said.
This constant disruption has caused a great deal of stress for the children and adults who are sent in to try to keep them on track. Just before the winter break, Watson was called to a three-week high school art class with more than 40 students at certain times.
“I had no idea what they knew or did, and I should have given them one last mark. It’s just an impossible situation,” she said irritably.
The constant change of new people also causes serious behavioral problems, and she noted that class management has become one of the most difficult aspects of her work for her and many of her colleagues.
“Now they’re different,” Watson said, describing the children she had taught over the past two years. “They’re noisy and they’re heavy.”
“Various school staff came to me on Thursday, sitting in class and supporting me because it was … it was just too much for me,” she said.
“It was definitely not what I signed up for when I first signed up,” Watson said, explaining that her first day at work was two weeks before the national shutdown in March 2020.
It hung there when educators were called to adapt to distance learning. She stayed there when the students returned to personal learning. But now he says, “I think it’s time for an honest conversation about what parents want their children to get out of school. Do they really want to get an education? Because it’s not happening.”