Each year before the first day of school, substitute teacher David Robinette typically has 25 to 30 working days already booked on his calendar.
In this year of the pandemic, he has two.
One of the lingering questions about what the school year will look like has been the need for substitute teachers. While there is a national shortage of substitute teachers, many schools are starting virtually, which could reduce sick days or allow quarantined teachers to work from home. But schools that are starting in-person could need more substitutes because of class-size limits and social distancing requirements in classrooms.
“Everybody is still trying to figure out how this year is going to work,” Robinette said. “It’s going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
While most districts are always hiring substitutes, the Fox School District in Jefferson County and some Warren County schools have advertised this month about their openings, anticipating a higher need this year. Substitutes make about $100 a day.
One superintendent of a rural district has floated the idea of bringing in National Guard units as substitute teachers. Matt Davis, superintendent of Eldon, Missouri, schools, made the suggestion to Gov. Mike Parson in a July meeting, according to a report in the Fulton Sun.
On Tuesday, the Missouri board of education made it easier to become a substitute teacher under an emergency rule, although the change was in the works before the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of the previous requirement of 60 hours of college credit, eligible substitute teachers must now hold a high school diploma, complete a 20-hour online training course and pass a background check.
Robinette, who has worked in the St. Charles School District for 11 years, disagrees with the state board’s decision to lower the standards for substitute teachers.
“Do you want a warm body or somebody where the day is not going to be wasted for the students?” he said. “You’re watering down the quality of the education if it becomes a warm body.”
Robinette is offering to tutor students virtually to supplement his income. He attributes the lack of assignments so far this year to teachers canceling vacations and holding on to their sick days in case of exposure to COVID-19.
The district’s school year starts Aug. 27, and about 70% of students chose to attend class in schools rather than virtually. Robinette, 62, said he is likely to accept a substitute job in the building even if teachers are quarantined due to exposures in schools.
The teachers, he said, “are family. It’s hard to turn your back on family.”
When the economy dips, the number of substitute teaching applicants tends to rise. But the pandemic has thrown off that trend, particularly for retired teachers who substitute part-time.
“A lot of our subs would be in those high-risk categories, certainly,” said Chris Gaines, superintendent of Mehlville School District.
In Mehlville, classes will be online-only to start the fall semester. Teachers are required to work in the schools at least one day a week. The district’s teachers will use one platform for online learning and substitutes will be able to log in as guests, Gaines said.
“Our curriculum department is working on specific training for substitutes and what that’s going to look like in a virtual environment,” he said. “It will be more work for teachers to prepare to be gone.”
Although much about the school year is unpredictable, Gaines points out that teachers will still need dental appointments. They will still have babies and take parental leave.
“Life goes on, it just operates a little bit differently,” he said.