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Education

Longer holidays, job fairs, eased qualifications; how Baltimore-area schools are coping with shortage of substitutes

Baltimore-area school systems, faced with overextended teachers and a shortage of substitutes, are adopting myriad strategies to ease the pressure they say the coronavirus pandemic is placing on educators’ shoulders this academic year.

Public school officials and union leaders say that despite students returning to the classroom, this school year is far from normal. In addition to educators’ typical workload, many are now tasked with tracking learning loss, creating packets of work to send home with quarantined children and working with students who are exhibiting more needs after learning from a computer screen for a year.

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Some teachers say they’re also working to ease behavioral issues in some students who are struggling in the classroom after a year of remote learning and the stress brought on by the pandemic.

That strain on teachers is evident as a staggering number of employees call out of work. Meanwhile, some school system leaders say that the number of substitutes available and willing to fill those gaps in the classroom has shrunk substantially since the beginning of the pandemic. Those shortages echo a national trend and have materialized at a time when Maryland school systems also are dealing with a bus driver shortage.

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Around the country, school districts in states such as Washington, Michigan and Florida have extended fall or winter holidays, citing reasons such as educator exhaustion and staffing shortages due to COVID-19.

Both Baltimore City and County schools extended the Thanksgiving holiday by one day in hopes of easing the burden felt by employees this fall.

Baltimore County school officials said in November that the average daily number of requests for substitutes had spiked by about 160 compared with the 2018-19 school year. And the school system’s pool of substitutes had shrunk by 650 people compared with before the pandemic, officials said at the time.

George Arlotto, Anne Arundel County’s superintendent, asked the school board to consider adding several early dismissal days to this school year’s calendar. The board is expected to make a decision on the request Wednesday.

Arlotto described in a recent op-ed in the Capital Gazette how teachers are being called on to cover classes for absent colleagues or take on additional lunch periods because of a shortage of lunch-recess monitors.

Carroll County schools shared its substitute numbers differently, offering a snapshot of the same November day over the past three years. That day recorded 262 requests in 2019, 313 requests in 2020 and 336 requests in 2021. Officials there say they are relying on instructional assistants and asking central office staff to fill in as substitutes.

“There’s nothing normal about this year, but we’re being asked to pretend as if nothing happened,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents classroom teachers and other certificated school employees.

Bost called the overwhelming workloads and substitute shortages a “major crisis” for Maryland schools systems. She urged school officials to remove barriers for substitute applicants such as covering the cost of fingerprinting for background checks. And she hopes federal and state pandemic relief funds will be used to hire more educators at higher wages to encourage retention.

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“We have to stop the bleeding, the people who are exiting,” Bost said.

Some public school officials say they are deploying a wide range of creative strategies to help recruit and retain more substitute teachers.

Harford County officials have relaxed the minimum educational requirement from a certain number of college credits to a high school diploma for substitutes at the elementary level. And they used pandemic relief funds to create “permanent substitute” positions that guarantee employees a minimum number of working days per week, said Dan Reimers, Harford County schools’ human resources official.

The permanent substitutes are paid a daily wage of $150 for a guaranteed three days of work per week, while traditional substitute positions are paid $115 to $130 per day depending on educational experience. During the pandemic, the system saw its pool of active substitutes halved, from 800 down to 400, but it has since rebounded to about 600, Reimers said.

“It’s been a challenge,” Reimers said. “We’ve asked people to step up in a lot of ways.”

Baltimore City created and is recruiting new districtwide substitute teachers who can commit to working every school day and agree to support any school across the city. The system also offers additional incentives such as higher compensation and benefits to attract high-quality candidates, but representatives did not respond to questions about specific compensation levels.

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“We are seeking to build a cadre of district substitutes to support many of the last-minute absences that have arisen largely due to teacher quarantining,” city schools spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers said in an email.

City school leaders also are exploring partnerships with outside organizations that staff and manage substitutes on behalf of districts, she said.

Baltimore County has held job fairs to court retirees back into classrooms and to fill substitute positions and other high-demand jobs.

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Howard County schools increased the pay for substitutes and provided additional pay to teachers and paraeducators who cover classes during their noninstructional times. Central office staff also are being called on to provide support in schools.

Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said union members are overwhelmed and reaching their breaking point.

“There’s so much more that educators do than teach,” said Sexton, citing data collection measuring student learning levels and behavior management.

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Since classes resumed this fall, educators have been asked to collect data or perform testing to measure reading and math levels among students. Sexton believes school leaders need to examine the root causes of teacher burnout and substitute shortages to solve the problem.

If local school systems fail to ease the burden, Bost worries, teachers may be forced to call out sick to catch up on work — or avoid taking time off when they are sick, she said.

“Our educators are just trying to keep their heads above water,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie and Baltimore Sun Media reporter Rachael Pacella contributed to this article.


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