By Stefanie Jackson – Both Accomack and Northampton County Public Schools are struggling to find substitute teachers amid a waning COVID-19 pandemic, with each school division applying a different strategy to address the issue.
The Accomack school board had previously approved a new substitute pay scale that would take effect Jan. 1, 2022.
However, “none of the board or any of us could have really anticipated the labor shortage which is driving hourly rate wages up from 15 to 20 dollars at places like McDonald’s or Walmart,” said Director of Human Resources Clara Chandler during the Oct. 19 Accomack school board meeting.
The demand for substitute teachers has increased as more school staff have been required to quarantine for COVID-19, and some substitutes are “fearful on returning to school,” she added.
Accomack schools have used the third round of the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding to hire new permanent substitutes, instructional assistants, and student support monitors.
Many of the new hires were offered placement on the substitute list, “rightly so … but we’re basically robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Chandler said.
The Accomack school board on Oct. 19 approved the new substitute teacher pay scale to take effect two months early, Nov. 1.
Accomack substitute teachers previously earned as little as $66.50 per day, but that was boosted to $90 per day for a substitute teacher without a college degree.
A substitute teacher with a bachelor’s degree will earn $105 per day, up from $90 per day. A teacher who has retired from Accomack County Public Schools will earn $135 per day to substitute.
Substitute teachers who work four days a week for a month will receive a monthly bonus of $150.
No experience is necessary to apply to be a substitute teacher.
The Northampton school division also has been struggling to find substitute teachers, even though it already has a competitive substitute pay scale: $84 per day for a substitute teacher without a degree, and $100 per day for a substitute teacher with a degree.
Long-term substitute teachers in Northampton schools earn more: $105 per day without a degree and $125 per day with a degree. (A teacher absence of 10 days or more is considered long-term.)
Many of Northampton’s substitutes are being placed in long-term assignments due to teachers quarantining for COVID-19 or taking maternity leave, said Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas during the Oct. 28 Northampton school board meeting.
There are about 50 names on the substitute list this year – about half as many as usual – and many of them are cafeteria substitutes, she said.
Northampton schools have resorted to unconventional strategies for getting substitutes, such as paying extra to salaried teachers to cover half or whole blocks during their planning periods.
One drawback is that those teachers have to spend time after school planning lessons, Thomas noted.
So far this school year, there have been more than 150 half- or full-day teacher absences that were not covered by substitute teachers but by internal staffing, she said.
The solution Thomas proposed is contracting the recruiting, training, and placement of substitute teachers with the ESS educational staffing firm, which is headquartered in Tennessee and works for 13 Virginia school divisions.
ESS would work on a “fee for service” basis, meaning the firm would be paid only for each successful substitute teacher placement. Thomas estimated the annual cost to Northampton schools for the service would be about $33,000.
Substitute teachers recruited by the firm would be employees of ESS, not NCPS, and they would be eligible for benefits and incentives not offered by Northampton schools.
For example, substitute teachers hired by ESS would be eligible for health insurance benefits. Currently, there is no circumstance in which an NCPS-employed substitute teacher could become eligible for health insurance.
ESS offers incentives to employees who accept certain jobs or refer other substitute teachers to the firm, and it pays employees every week instead of every two weeks.
ESS also will be able to use retired teachers living in Northampton County to assist with substitute teacher training.
Teachers and substitutes will continue using Northampton’s current absence management software, Frontline, formerly AESOP. The service can be accessed online or by phone.
Northampton school employees currently use Frontline to complete tasks such as entering absences and uploading lesson plans for substitutes.
Substitutes can use Frontline to view and accept available work assignments and view their schedules.
Superintendent Eddie Lawrence added that another benefit of the ESS service is that assistant principals will spend less time finding and contacting substitute teachers.
The Northampton school board voted unanimously in favor of obtaining the services of ESS.