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A good substitute teacher is worth more and more

Waterford High School substitute Carl Malinowsky had always thought about teaching as a career path but never pursued it.

Then, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the 25-year-old heard several local school districts were hiring substitutes and he thought it would be a good way to get his "foot in the door" in a school and get experience in education, since his prior experience was working with the elderly.

Now he works every day as a substitute, a job in which no two days are the same and flexibility is key.

"You could be going from ninth grade health class to 12th grade English class to help cover lunch in the matter of two hours," he said.

He said the most rewarding part of the job is the ability to make a difference in students' lives every day, while the biggest lesson he's learned is managing COVID-19 protocols as schools try to stay open during the pandemic. But he said the school offers plenty of personal protective equipment, and administrators have been doing a great job balancing COVID-19 fears with keeping kids in school.

He had an easy rapport with students after classes Thursday at Waterford High School, as he asked a student in the library how his exam went, then caught up with a pair of students in the hallway and jokingly asked them what they were still doing there.

Substitutes like Malinowsky are in high demand, with many school districts in the region and across the country facing a shortage of full-time staff and also a shortage of substitutes to fill in for them.

Malinowsky, who lives in Montville, has a bachelor's degree in social work, makes $125 a day as a building substitute and enjoys his job. But he also understands the challenges of shortages facing school districts across the country and, overall, thinks a national effort should be made to increase substitute teacher pay and benefits.

"Staffing shortages continue to be a nationwide issue, one that existed prior to the pandemic and likely has been exacerbated by the pandemic," said Eric Scoville, spokesperson for the state Department of Education.

Southeastern Connecticut school districts are experiencing shortages of regular full-time teachers and substitutes and are competing with other districts — and other industries — for a shrinking pool of candidates. Some individuals say it's a rewarding time to be a substitute, but others have opted out due to the pressures of the job, concerns over COVID-19, family responsibilities or better opportunities in other fields, among other reasons.

In New London Public Schools, 20 to 40 staff positions each day are not filled. Teachers have to use their preparation time to cover other classes, or absorb additional students into their class — or both, said Robert A. Stacy, executive director of talent and human resources for the district. Administrators cover classes on almost a daily basis.

Preston is seeing a shortage of substitutes in all areas. "We are using college students, retirees and paraeducators to cover classrooms," Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said.

June Froh, a retired Ledyard High School teacher who began substitute teaching in Ledyard and Stonington in 2014, said prior to the pandemic, finding a substitute assignment could sometimes be a challenge, as several people were vying for the same opening. Now, she could get a job every day, if she wished.

She said she feels safe at school. A typical day entails taking attendance, ensuring students are completing assignments and managing student behavior, though she has had few problems overall. She said at one school, several students thanked her for subbing, and staff members are grateful.

Shelley Freeman, 36, started working as a special education paraprofessional in 2016 and then began subbing in 2017 to be on the same schedule as her three children in the Ledyard School District. She is now pursuing a master's degree in special education.

Before the pandemic, she could sometimes go a week without a job, but now every day one is available. She said she feels bad that sometimes she has to turn one down to focus on her education or take care of her own children when they are sick.

Freeman said she was hesitant to go back into subbing during the pandemic because she was concerned about how she would handle the COVID-19 mitigation strategies. But once she got back into the classroom, she got comfortable and "it's just natural now." She said students have adapted well to the new school environment.

Freeman realizes the pandemic has impacted many children on a social-emotional level and that may change their behavior, so she is trying to give students the room to process all the changes that are happening to them. She spent time in a special education classroom last school year, and said it felt nice to give students a space where they could feel like school is what it always has been.

What is causing the shortages?

School districts face shortages when staff members test positive for the coronavirus, have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive or need to take care of a family member, among other reasons, Seitsinger said. An employee also could "choose to step away" from their job as part of the Great Resignation, or due to stress or being overwhelmed in the moment.

The pool of substitutes also is shrinking: “People are either finding other jobs or not interested in working within a school building at this time,” East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said.

Among the many factors, Stacy said, are people who are of an age and risk category who do not feel the extra income is worth it.

Connecticut Association of Boards of Education Executive Director Robert J. Rader said raising pay for substitutes and the greater availability of at-home testing may help, but many people are not looking much at working in public education because it is so difficult. The pressures placed on staff, as well as students, during the pandemic have been challenging.

Wages across other industries also have increased to $15 an hour or more due to staffing shortages, said Laurie LePine, director of human resources for Groton Public Schools, which experienced a roughly 20% to 25% staffing shortage during the pandemic.

To be competitive, the Groton Board of Education approved pay increases, effective Jan. 1, for staff members making less than $15 per hour.

Increasing pay, stepping up recruitment

Pay for substitute teachers varies across districts, from $100 to $150 per day, or higher for substitutes who take on additional responsibilities.

Preston paid substitutes $85 a day before the pandemic, but substitutes now earn between $120 to $150 per day, with long-term substitutes earning $150 and becoming eligible for health benefits after a period, Seitsinger said.

In the Stonington school district, which recently increased substitute pay to $125 and is proposing raises for paraprofessionals in next year's budget, Superintendent Van Riley announced that any staff member who refers a person to be a substitute teacher or paraprofessional will receive a $500 referral payment if that person is hired, starting Monday.

School board member Dan Kelley, who has worked as a substitute, suggested increasing substitute pay to $150 a day.

Riley also told the board that a no-cost way to retain employees is to praise and encourage them during a challenging time.

The New London school district collaborated with Kelly Education, which has a contract with the district to provide substitutes, to raise the daily pay rate for substitutes, Stacy said. Each school also is staffed with three to five “hybrid substitute teachers," which are district employees who work every day and earn $180 per day.

But the district still struggles to fill positions.

"We are competing against surrounding districts for the same pool of candidates," Stacy said. "Some districts have raised their daily rate to what we see as unsustainable levels."

With a shortage in daily substitutes, the Montville school district focused on hiring more permanent substitutes, who are guaranteed work every day and whose pay ranges from $110 to $150 a day, depending on their qualifications, Superintendent Laurie Pallin said. Substitutes who also plan lessons and correct assignments are paid $260 per day.

Montville reached an agreement with the teachers' union this year to pay teachers $60 to teach an extra block to cover for an absent teacher, she added.

The Groton school district is networking with retirees to encourage them to return to work and recruiting college students to work during school breaks and springtime, when it is typically more difficult to find substitutes, according to LePine.

Norwich hired additional teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries as floaters to fill in where needed in the district, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said.

The Lyme-Old Lyme district, however, is not experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers or paraprofessionals, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said.

Neviaser said substitute teachers get $120 per day after the rate was increased in December due to a shortage at the time. Substitute paraeducators receive $16.01 an hour under the most recent contract, approved in July. The district also used an “aggressive” advertising strategy in print media and is benefitting from recent college graduates who returned to the area and are available as substitutes as they start their careers.

A bachelor’s degree, as well as a criminal background check with fingerprints, and a Connecticut Department of Children and Families background check, are required by state regulation to become a substitute, LePine said.

The Department of Education has offered more flexibility in the requirements for substitutes in response to shortages, including making it easier for individuals without bachelor's degrees to become substitutes. The agency issued 67% more substitute authorizations for individuals without a bachelor’s degree in the first half of this school year than it did in the entire pre-pandemic school year of 2018-19, Scoville said.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Elizabeth Regan, Greg Smith, Johana Vazquez and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com

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