Substitute Teach? Now, during COVID?

My world before COVID. Since? Not so much.

What will it take to convince substitute teachers like me to return to the classroom?

Jobs have never been more available. Consider these emails, which arrived in my inbox in mid-December, near the peak of the Omicron onslaught:

From Marilyn Adelberg, the human resources director who oversees the substitute-teacher program in tony Greenwich, Conn.: “URGENT REQUEST: Substitutes needed.” Then, days later: “WE HAVE 38 JOB OPENINGS THIS MORNING! PLEASE SIGN UP IF YOU ARE AVAILABLE TODAY!”

By the week prior to Christmas break, the district was offering substitute teachers a $30-a-day bonus added to the $110 we normally earn, an extra $50 a day for those who agree to work an entire week.

Over the years I’ve substituted in Greenwich public schools perhaps 20 times. It’s among the nation’s most advantaged school districts, one that until COVID generally had little trouble attracting subs. I volunteered because my roots in education run deep. My wife and mother were educators; both worked more than 20 years in Norwalk, Conn., public schools. Now semi-retired, I wanted to help out.

The additional money didn’t sway me. Nor, I regret to say, has the district’s clear need.

My reasoning is simple: As of Mar. 25, there had been 2,248 positive COVID cases reported this school year among Greenwich students, faculty, administrators, staff and service providers (such as bus drivers). Teachers account for 195 of them, out of a faculty that totals roughly 725. I’m 72 years old. Vaccinated and boosted though I am, why would I place myself at such risk?

I’m hardly alone. “Think about who normally are substitutes,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me. “The cohort who has been most affected by this respiratory virus are people who are older.”

This, when the need for subs has never been more acute. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 600,000 fewer educators working today than there were just two years ago. Every state has struggled, California, Washington and Nevada especially.

At Omicron’s apex, in late January, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took substitute teacher training and worked for a day as a kindergarten teacher at Santa Fe’s Salazar Elementary School. Earlier, New Mexico State University researchers had reported that the state, at the start of the current school year, had 1,048 unfilled, full-time teacher positions, affecting 20,000 or more students.

Afterward, the governor called upon National Guard members to volunteer to work as subs at state public schools. About 100 did.

Yes, school is back in most American communities. But without enough substitutes to cover for absent teachers, this is what schools look and feel like to those who are there:

From Emily Turano, a seventh-grade consumer sciences teacher at Greenwich’s Eastern Middle School. Since Omicron hit, she and her colleagues repeatedly have had to forego their prep period to cover for one another.

“Teachers are becoming more run down,” said Turano, who took a sick day earlier this school year. “It takes about as long to plan for a class lesson as to teach it. There have been times I’ve spent an hour and a half preparing for a 45-minute class. If I now have to substitute during my [one] prep period, that means maybe the fun, fancy lesson I was planning for the next day is going to be a little bit less.”

From Hilary Hohmeister, a fourth-grade teacher at the town’s Hamilton Avenue School: “Each grade used to have recess together, and out on the playground the teachers would discuss the material we were covering, the problems we were encountering. Now each class has recess separately, and it’s harder to have those discussions.”

From Joanna Savino, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Eastern Middle School. She lunches with three or four educators in another’s classroom. They sit well apart: “We use that time to decompress and share our feelings,” she said. “Some have family who’ve been sick. We have students who have had family members die. Teaching has always been stressful. But these are our conversations now.”

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont lifted the statewide, in-school mask mandate for teachers, administrators, staff and students Feb. 28. But anxiety among teachers and their rate of absenteeism remains higher than it was before COVID, and it won’t ease the willingness of substitutes like me to return.

The Greenwich School District already knows this. Around the time of the governor’s announcement, the jockeying among individual schools for potential subs ratcheted up another notch. One recent morning as the school bell was about to ring, I got a phone call from Greenwich’s Central Middle School. A staff member asked if I’d be willing to come in. The bonus pay arrangement, she said, had been extended through March.

A version of this piece appeared originally in the New York Daily News.



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Ron Berler

Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and