Finding substitute teachers is always a challenge for school districts, one that’s become even more difficult this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because substitute teachers are often retired teachers and other retirees, they’re reluctant to be exposed to groups of unvaccinated children all day.

In an effort to cope with the substitute teacher shortage, Riverside Elementary District 96 has hired a permanent substitute teacher for each of its five schools to weather the shortage of on-call subs.  

“We knew that in the event if we had someone who is out and we weren’t able to get a sub it would be nice to know that at least one position would be able to be filled each time,” said Angela Dolezal, the director of teaching and learning in District 96. “We knew that we had sub needs pretty much daily, so it justified the cost of having a permanent sub.”

Permanent subs in District 96 are paid what a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes — $45,778. They are also covered by the district’s regular staff health, vision and dental insurance, if they so choose, but they are not part of the district’s teachers union. 

The permanent subs in District 96 are usually experienced.

“They’ve either been subs before or paraprofessionals,” Dolezal said.

Even then, District 96 has found out, permanent subs can be temporary employees, with two permanent subs recently getting permanent jobs in other school districts. The one at Blythe Park School already has been replaced, and a new permanent sub will start at Hauser Junior High School later this month.

District 96 also increased how much it pays regular substitute teachers this year in an effort to attract more of them. In District 96, day-to-day substitutes are paid $125 a day for the first 20 days they work, compared $105 a day last year. 

If a substitute teacher works more than 20 days, the pay increases to $135 a day, up from $115 a year ago. Long-term substitutes, those who substitute for the same teacher for more than 15 consecutive days, are paid $175 a day.

When no substitute teacher is needed where a permanent sub is based, that person will help out other teachers or occasionally substitute in another school. That hasn’t happened much this year, except occasionally at the district’s smallest school, Hollywood School.

“We see that we are utilizing [permanent subs] daily,” Dolezal said. “We had originally thought that we would have a schedule for each sub in each building to utilize them when they weren’t in a subbing position, and we quickly learned that we have not utilized those schedules at all. They are constantly subbing in one way or another.”

At Hollywood School permanent substitute Jaclyn Bottemley has done a little bit of everything, including supervising recess.

“We use her all the time for so many different things,” said Hollywood School Principal Kim Hefner. 

When not subbing, Bottomley helps in the primary grades where many students have had difficulty adapting to school after being away from normal school for over a year.

There are also educational advantages to having a permanent sub at a school. 

“Somebody who can really learn the routines, get to know the students, understand their curriculum, it really does become more effective than a day-to-day sub,” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye. 

Whether permanent subs become a permanent presence in District 96 has yet to be determined.

“We don’t know for sure about our long term needs and it’s not considered a long-term employment position,” Ryan-Toye said. “I think it could be ongoing. I think the schools have to demonstrate the effectiveness of it.”

D103 raises pay for subs

Other area school districts are also having problems recruiting enough substitute teachers. Last week, the Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 Board of Education voted to raise the pay of its substitutes from to $150 a day, a $40 increase, in an effort to attract more substitutes.

“We are very seriously trying to get substitute teachers,” District 103 Superintendent Kristopher Rivera said.

When a substitute teacher cannot be found, regular teachers may have to rotate into the absent teachers’ classrooms during their plan periods in a process called internal subbing. This can be disruptive to students. Staff teachers are paid extra according to their contract for internal subbing. Sometimes math or reading specialists will take over the classroom of an absent teacher.

Finding enough substitute teachers has been a chronic issue for Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95, but the school district has not taken any special measures to deal with the challenge this year other than trying not to schedule meetings regarding special education students’ individual education plans during the regular school day.

“For us maintaining a sub pool has always been a challenge,” said District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski. “We always seem to have certain days when we don’t have enough subs to cover but that was a problem pre-pandemic and it continues to be a problem this year.” 

District 95 pays its substitute teachers $110 a day, an amount that hasn’t been raised this year.

Kuzniewski said that with COVID-19 cases declining, he is hoping to add to his sub pool. He said that a couple of people have recently applied to substitute teach in District 95 and he is hopeful that more will apply. 

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree can apply for a substitute teacher’s license. In an effort to deal with the substitute shortage, Illinois has recently added a short-term substitute license that is good until June 30, 2023 for those with an associate’s degrees or 60 hours of college credit.