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'We Can't Get Subs': Sub Shortage May Cause Schools To Go Remote

A man in a cloth mask outside a stone building with red doors
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
Michael Macijeski taught at Northfield Middle & High School for two decades. Now he is a substitute teacher, although he does worry about the coronavirus' potential danger to his health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need for substitute teachers. And although some continue to work despite health risks, cold and flu season could cause the need for subs to far surpass what’s available, and force schools to send students home.

Mike Macijeski was a history teacher for 20 years at Northfield Middle & High school before retiring in 2019. Now, he subs.

"I love teaching," he said. "You know, some teachers retire and they're like, 'Never setting foot in there again.' I’m the other kind."

Last year, he was signed up to be a substitute in every school district in Washington County. But this year, Macijeski hesitated. There’s a pandemic, and he’s 67.

He asked himself: "Did I want to do it? I mean, in my heart, I wanted to do it. But, you know, I kind of would like to live to play with my grandchildren and get old together with my wife and all that."

On the other hand, he said, "I'd like to be there for my colleagues, and I know there's a shortage of subs."

"Some of it just boils down to, there aren't a lot of people out there willing, able, interested in doing the work." — Patrick Reen, Mount Abraham Unified School District superintendent

There is. Many schools struggled to have enough subs before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Mount Abraham Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Reen, the pandemic has not improved that situation for the six schools in his Addison County district.

"Some of it just boils down to, there aren't a lot of people out there willing, able, interested in doing the work," Reen said.

Depending on the day, a school may only have two people they can reach out to as possible subs. And:

"If they say no, [the school is] left sort of in a lurch, trying to figure out how to get a capable, responsible adult to cover some of those essential positions," Reen said. He added that support staff and administrators often have had to step in to cover classrooms this fall. And he expects the need for subs will only increase.

"The problem really is, we can’t get subs," he said.

More from VPR: 'Very, Very Cautious': Vt. Teachers Union President On How The School Year Is Going

Out of an abundance of COVID-19 caution, teachers and school staff need to stay home if they have cold or flu-like symptoms. Or if they may have been exposed to COVID-19. Or if one of their own children is sick. This list goes on, but the point is: less subs, more need. To make in-person learning work come cold and flu season, Reen said he needs more substitutes.

"At least a 50% increase, if not doubling what we currently have for available subs, could be ideal," he said. But that’s unlikely. Reen said this shortage may end up causing his district to switch to remote learning.

"I'm signing up to be guaranteed to be indoors, with a lot of people, for an extended amount of time." — Kayla James, substitute teacher

Kayla James is one of the subs the Mount Abe District relies on. She's 31, got her teaching license five years ago and decided to start off as a substitute. She fell in love with the job.

"I love being the consistent person who shows up for kids when their teacher can't be there," she said. "All the kids know me, and they know what to expect when I come in. So, you know, just being able to be a consistent person for them when their consistent person isn't there... really feels like filling a void for them."

Last week, James finished a long-term stint in a first grade classroom. Now she’s back to subbing on a per diem basis, and she’s on the list to sub at the five elementary schools in the district.

"I sort of am going in a little bit hesitantly knowing I’m about to expose myself to five different pools of people, potentially, instead of just one," James said. "I’m signing up to be guaranteed to be indoors, with a lot of people, for an extended amount of time."

Mount Abe pays $13.25 an hour for daily subs. And subs don’t get health insurance, or benefits. Luckily James isn’t trying to make rent; she lives with her parents in Bristol. But they’re older, and have underlying conditions. James said as case numbers go up, she’ll assess day-to-day whether or not she’s comfortable going in.

At the same time, she knows subs are needed. Once her name was back on the substitute list, it took exactly 1 hour and 4 minutes before she got a call.

"... as long as I feel safe and welcome, which I do at the moment, it's an easy way to use my background to contribute, which feels good." — Mike Macijeski, retired teacher who also substitutes

Mike Macijeski also made the decision to keep subbing, for now. But not in every district in the county, just at Northfield Middle & High school, where he used to teach. He got special permission to sub there; he was elected to the school board in March, and needed a waiver from the Agency of Education to be a substitute within the same district.

Macijeski and I met at Northfield in the middle of a Monday. Some students were eating lunch around the corner. We sat on the concrete steps by the school’s old main entrance, facing Vine Street. I asked him what the place — the school — meant to him.

"Oh, a great deal," he said. For Macijeski, the brick building behind us held more than 20 years of memories.

"The place is thick with adventures, incidents, people, faces, noises, just, you know ... It’s like the tides of life."

More from VPR: Here's How The First Day Of School Looked (And Sounded) In Milton

I asked him whether that feeling of connection was what kept him coming back, even with COVID-19's potential danger to his health.

"Yes," Macijeski said. "You know, as long as I feel safe and welcome, which I do at the moment, it’s an easy way to use my background to contribute, which feels good."

The next day, he was subbing ninth grade algebra.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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