A glorified babysitter: my time as an unqualified substitute teacher during the pandemic

On a frigid late December morning in the throes of the Omicron surge, I flicked off my alarm and peeked out the window: pitch black. I was awake, I was sure, and not lost in an REM-induced mirage. But it certainly felt like a dream, as I strapped on my backpack and walked through the doors of my old high school.

In the 10 years since graduation, I had had a recurring nightmare that I was back inside that building. But now I was an adult in need of a part-time job to supplement my income as a freelance writer, and our nation’s public school system was facing the very real nightmare of a substitute teachers’ shortage. I set aside my fears and applied for the job.

That system has long been mired in a substitute teacher shortage, which has only intensified during the pandemic. Long frustrated by low wages, substitutes – as well as other support staff workers – have been driven out of the profession, whether because of safety concerns, lack of childcare options or due to vaccine and mask mandates they believe to be government overreach. Schools are now ratcheting up day rates for substitute teachers and raising teaching salaries in a desperate attempt to fill the shortage. And the damage has been widespread: in October, a national EdWeek Research Center survey found that more than 75% of school principals and districts were having difficulty finding enough substitutes to cover teacher absences.

The hope entering this school year was that kids could get back on track after years of mass closures and on-off virtual learning. But the road has been bumpier than expected. The shortage has led to people like me, with no education background – and, frankly, no interest in pursuing one – standing in front of classrooms with little knowledge on how to guide students, teach them, or how to manage their behavior.

By late fall, schools were so desperate for warm bodies that all I needed was a bachelor’s degree and my fingerprints in the state system to qualify for the job – the requirements for substitute teachers to have teaching certifications had been dropped by the time I applied in November. “Résumé preferred,” read the Facebook post advertising the job I applied for, “but not required.”

In other states, requirements were scaled back, requiring the simple ownership of a high school degree, and one school district in Texas called on parents to work as substitutes to fill the shortage. Elsewhere, measures have been even more extreme: New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham launched an initiative encouraging members of the national guard and state employees to volunteer to become licensed substitute teachers, and Lujan Grisham even became one herself, teaching kindergarten for one day. In one district in Oklahoma, police officers have worked as substitutes.

Back at my high school, on Long Island, I locked eyes with my old guidance counsellor in the hallway on the morning of my first day. “What the hell am I gonna do?” I asked.

“You’re going to be fine,” he chuckled. I was not so sure: I had received no formal training for the job. All that was expected of me, he said, was to take attendance, maintain a low noise level, and above all else, make sure the kids kept their masks on. I was basically a glorified babysitter – with less of the interaction.

“Good morning, everyone,” I said to my first-period English class that morning. Over the next 42 minutes I would sit at my desk surfing the internet as the kids completed the work assigned by their teachers on their Chromebooks. Some talked among themselves, others simply slept – and I did what I was supposed to do; I just kept on browsing.

My brief stint as a substitute teacher coincided with the worst of the Omicron wave in New York state, in December 2021 and January of this year. On 7 January, the state reached an all-time high of 90,132 new cases, with deaths on par of those a year prior – before we even had a vaccine. This dark situation was reflected in teachers’ attendance: on 3 January , the first day back after Christmas break, a colleague told me 42 teachers had called in sick.

Yes, I saw some of my old teachers. No, they did not recognize me. There were also the teachers I did not see, whose classes I was filling in for, and who were rumored to be out because of Covid-19 infection or exposure. I started every class by taking attendance, and often after I called the name of a student who was absent, a kid would chime in: “she has Covid.” On my second day, I overheard one student tell her friends her father had tested positive the day before. From my desk I realized I was more than six feet removed from the student and let out a breath of relief. Contracting Covid would put myself and my family in danger, although we are all vaccinated and boosted. I could see why other teachers might not want to take the risk.

As far as I could tell, no teachers or students came down with serious illness during my tenure, but one teacher told me he’d missed a month of school with a bad case of Covid-19 the previous year. Now he was vaccinated but he left up the Plexiglass surrounding his desk.

Deb Berger, 75, a substitute teacher in the Saratoga Springs, New York, school district and the president of the Southern Adirondack Substitute Teachers Alliance, said the situation I experienced was not unusual.

“It was really difficult in the beginning of the year,” Berger said. “Just the building I was in, there could be 40, 50 teachers out [in one day] and I know they didn’t have enough subs [to cover].”

Berger said she was often the oldest person in the Saratoga Springs high school building where she has been subbing for the past five years. Berger’s age puts her at heightened risk of hospitalization if she contracts the coronavirus, and she says a lot of her older colleagues have been “hesitant” to work since the pandemic. Berger, on the other hand, does not feel threatened: “I can honestly say that I never felt scared during the pandemic. The district has taken the proper actions.,” she said. Despite New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul announcing plans to end the mask requirement this week, Berger added that she would still be wearing her mask at school.

Some states are looking for younger substitute teachers; both Kansas State and Montclair State University, New Jersey, have launched programs preparing college students to be substitutes to help combat the shortage.

Districts in other parts of the country have tried different strategies. At one point in early January, in Hays county, a suburban area about 30 miles outside Austin, Texas, the district was averaging 400 teacher absences per day. The school district called on parents to register to become substitutes to try to fill the gap.

Brian McKinney, a parent in the district and owner of the local Memorial Miniature Golf and WWII Museum, needed some extra money and signed up. A former teacher, his certification had lapsed more than a decade ago, but after taking three hours of courses and passing two 20-question exams, he was thrown back inside the classroom.

But he noticed his responsibilities were muted once he got into the classroom.

“Now all of the quizzes are on their laptops online,” McKinney said. “So it’s really a matter of classroom discipline, and making sure they’re staying on task, not cutting up, disrupting class,” he said.

Hays district is still averaging about 185 teacher absences per day, although its pool of substitutes grew to 400 after the initiative was launched and was covered in local press.

“I feel like I did my part,” McKinney said.

The Moore public school district in Oklahoma took a different approach, filling some of its classrooms on 18 January with armed officers from the Moore police department.

That didn’t come without its controversies: on the first day of the officers’ start, locals uncovered photos of officers unmasked in classrooms that had been uploaded to the police department’s Facebook page. That same day, the state’s coronavirus cases reached its peak since the pandemic started.

The Facebook post went viral, with reactions ranging from disgust to appreciation. “Looks like the school to prison pipeline just got a fast track,” one Facebook user wrote. “Because nothing says ‘study arithmetics’ during a global pandemic like an unmasked police officer with weapons on his belt staring at you,’” wrote another.

It’s unclear if the district continued to use officers beyond 18 January – the police department did not respond to requests for comment – but their presence left an impact on area students.

Nicole McAfee, a local activist who advocates for police reform, said students in districts around Moore had approached her and shared their discomfort over police in the classrooms, especially considering the reputation of state police in Black communities. A peer-reviewed study in the Lancet found that Oklahoma had the highest mortality rate of police violence among all 50 states from 1980-2019.

“It certainly remains a concern to me that on any given day they may show up in a classroom where an unmasked cop is at the front of the room without any sort of the support around the trauma [that could bring] – especially for a state with one of the highest rates of incarceration around the country,” said McAfee.

For many longtime subs, the risks associated with coming into schools simply aren’t worth the reward. In May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the mean hourly wage for substitutes to be $17.35, and while some districts have upped compensation amid the pandemic, it’s often not enough. I earned $110 a day as a substitute, which is barely enough to cover rent and bills in most American cities.

When districts can’t fill schools, they close and go virtual. A national survey of 148,400 parents conducted by the New York Times and data firm Dynata released 28 February found that 25% of children missed more than one week of in-person learning in January due to school closures from staff shortages, teachers’ union work stoppages or virus outbreaks, among other reasons.

And schools that stay open despite shortages often leave students underserved.

“We weren’t really learning when [teachers] were out. So it was hard to understand the topic they were trying to teach,” said one high school student at a public school in my county. “The sub comes in and sits there, and then we listen to a video and answer questions.”

My district, based in a suburb just outside New York City, has not closed this year, but has experienced discord over the school mask mandate, which was lifted for one day in November before virus numbers started to shoot back up.

My stint at the high school ended shorter than expected, as I received a job offer in my field. I savored my final few days, especially my sixth-period stops to the teachers’ cafeteria, where a kind lunch lady served me her homemade chicken noodle soup for $2 a bowl.

My nightmares about being back in high school have stopped, but I fear that the bad dream enveloping the school might not have an endpoint.

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