The Red Lake Falls School District in Red Lake Falls, Minn., has been facing a shortage of substitute teachers recently, leaving the district asking anybody with a four-year degree to consider substitute teaching as an option.
J.A. Hughes Elementary School Principal Chris Bjerklie said the lack of substitute teachers is not a new problem, but COVID-19 has made the problem worse. The district relies heavily on retired teachers to serve as substitute teachers, but during COVID-19, many of those retirees are reluctant to return to the classroom and increase their chances of getting sick.
The substitute teacher shortage has upset the schedules of students, teachers and school administration.
“Over the last year and a half, we’ve had teachers canceling their own doctor appointments, and not taking care of themselves because they feel that they need to be in their classrooms,” said Bjerklie. “We’ve had to reassign students to different classrooms, reassign them to different teachers, sometimes we’ve not had music class because we don’t have a music teacher.”
Lafayette High School has a few regular substitute teachers they can rely on, but sometimes, keeping classrooms staffed calls for more creative solutions.
“There are some days where we have to cover in-house. Other teachers use their prep time to kind of rotate in and fill the hours of a teacher that’s gone, or else administration has to do it, or our counselors,” said Brad Kennett, Lafayette High School principal.
Red Lake Falls is not the only district short on substitutes. According to Bjerklie, other schools in the region like Thief River Falls, Red Lake County Central and Fertile are facing similar challenges in finding substitute teachers.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said the need for substitute teachers is a statewide problem. Like Red Lake Falls, other districts across Minnesota were struggling to find substitutes before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, the problem is worse.
“Before the pandemic, it was issues like wages and working conditions that were keeping people from wanting to be guest teachers or substitute teachers,” said Specht. “During the pandemic, you see a lot of other concerns. Perhaps people weren’t sure if they would be safe subbing in a school.”
While Specht sees the problems that many schools in the state are facing with staffing, she warns against lowering standards to fill positions.
“We want to do everything we can to attract and retain the best people to work in our public schools, and the minute we start lowering standards or watering down requirements just so we get a warm body in a district, I don’t believe that that is serving children well,” said Specht.
Specht says that the biggest ways schools can attract quality substitute teacher candidates is by offering competitive wages for the positions and creating good working conditions for substitutes.
Red Lake Falls School District is offering substitutes $125 per day for substitute teachers, and $150 per day after 30 days of teaching. Applicants are required to have a four-year degree. Anyone interested in becoming a substitute teacher at the elementary school or high school can call Kennett at 218-253-2163 or Bjerklie at 218-253-2161.