Substitute teachers could be scarce if coronavirus spreads in classrooms

Teachers quarantining at home could cause demand for substitute teachers to rise. If substitute teachers worried about spreading COVID-19 don't want to work in school buildings, Georgia could face a substitute shortage. izusek/Getty Images

Tricia Latulippe is a substitute teacher for two Cherokee County elementary schools where she’s missed spending time with children and is looking forward to going back in August — but she has reservations.

Tricia Latulippe is eager to get back to substitute teaching, but worries about the impact of COVID-19 on classrooms. Photo submitted by Tricia Latulippe.

“How is it possible to social distance in a classroom of 25 to 30?” she said. “Instead of saying ‘no talking,’ it will be replaced by ‘mask this, mask that, wash your hands, sanitize your desk and everything you touched.’ What position does that put teachers and administrators in? It seems like an impossible task to expect of employees.”

Cherokee County, like most other Georgia school systems that have announced reopening plans, plans to offer either face-to-face instruction with additional safety measures or distance learning over the internet. Employees will be required to wear masks when social distancing is not possible, but students will not.

Substitute teachers like Latulippe could be in high demand as state guidelines suggest any teacher, student or other school employee exposed to COVID-19 quarantine for 14 days before returning to school.

At the same time, many of them are either planning not to teach this year or waiting to see how things look once schools have reopened.

“I think there will be a much higher demand for substitutes, and I think there will be a much smaller pool to pull from,” said Georgia School Superintendent Association Executive Director John Zauner.

“I think that will certainly be a struggle, and then, based on your location in the state, urban areas will have a little broader pool to pull from, but I think the rural areas will definitely be hit negatively on having the availability of substitutes,” Zauner said. 

Most of Latulippe’s colleagues say they will avoid teaching, at least for a while. She said she knows about 20 substitute teachers who are staying out of the classroom. Some of them are planning to help their own children study online.

“I only know of myself and one other who is subbing,” she said. “The rest are not coming back until we have more answers. It’s impossible to expect students, educators and staff to constantly be social distancing and/or masked.”

Michael Mullen has been substitute teaching in Fulton County Schools and some private schools for about eight years, but he won’t be entering any classrooms this year, he said.

Fulton County Schools announced plans to push back the start of the school year by a week to Aug. 17 and allow students to either study in-person or online. The district is planning for multiple scenarios and is prepared to change plans if necessary, Superintendent Mike Looney said at a Thursday school board meeting.

Mullen said he believes administrators have the students’ best interests at heart, but he worries school leaders’ best efforts will not be enough to halt the viral spread.

“I’m afraid of communities seeing sudden spikes within a month or two of schools reopening, which will lead to a sudden shift from in-person to online education,” he said. “That sudden shift that students experienced last year was bad enough, but that was after a majority of the school year was finished.”

Michael Mullen does not plan on substitute teaching this year because of the pandemic. Some worry there could be a substitute teacher shortage as they seek to avoid spreading or contracting COVID-19.
Photo contributed by Michael Mullen

Mullen’s students struggled to deal with the sudden loss of their daily school routines and the support offered by their friends and social groups, he said.

“The sudden shift they experienced at the end of the previous school year was utterly painful for most of them, forcing them into unknown waters and into an unknown world,” he said. “It was dominantly the sudden change in structure and expectations that struck my students the worst. I’m afraid of having students experience the same downward shift with the school year starting with in-person education.”

For most of the year, Mullen is called in to substitute once or twice a week, but during cold weather flu season, that increases to nearly every day. He worries if he were to substitute this year, it could be even busier.

“I see the demand outstripping the available subs,” he said. “Without quick and active testing and contact tracing in place, a single missed case, whether student, teacher or sub, would ripple through the school. Everyone will be exposed. Schools will probably not catch an infection within the student population quickly. Demand would increase in the exact same way that demand increased during flu season.”

Mullen can afford not to sub. He makes most of his money as a private tutor. For him, substitute teaching is a side job that is more rewarding to his heart than his wallet.

“The extra income was nice, but it wasn’t a major draw for me, though I don’t know if the economic effect would change over the course of the rest of the year,” he said. “I like subbing because of the students, their ingenuity, their questions. Even though I’m just there as a temp to keep the gears of the classroom going, any interaction with them brings joy to my day.”

But even for those who don’t rely on substitute teaching to pay the bills, the loss of that extra income can hurt, Latulippe said.

“Our sub money helps tremendously. I know subs who had to resort to Instacart, etc. to make up for the loss,” she said. “Personally, I have picked up house-sitting and tutoring jobs here and there. I love subbing. I miss my babies, but I would be lying if I said that I was not concerned.”

Many substitutes are retired teachers who want to teach occasionally and earn some extra money without committing to a full-time job. Those experienced teachers are often districts’ first choice, especially when a teacher is expected to be out for more than a few days, Zauner said. But older people are also more at risk of complications from COVID-19, which may lead to even more substitute teachers holding off on returning.

School districts across the state are supposed to be doing the right things to make sure the first day of school is as safe as possible, Zauner said. That’s also their best bet for making sure substitute teachers feel safe enough to come in, too.

“They’re really trying to build trust with their staff, showing them that they’re doing everything they can provide a safe environment, whether it’s giving them the appropriate PPE and some of the other supportive things they can do, including sanitizing classrooms on a regular basis, trying all those things they can do to make everybody feel reasonably safe, even though there are no guarantees in any of this.”

Ross Williams
Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.