When ‘demand’ is higher than ‘supply’: substitute teacher numbers in schools

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB)
Jan. 29, 2022 12:47 a.m.

Most Oregon districts aren’t using a new emergency license.

Across the state, there’s a huge demand for substitute teachers and all of the other staff that keep schools operating — from bus drivers to nutrition service workers to educational assistants.

Staff shortages related to COVID-19 have been serious enough that a number of schools have been forced to close temporarily this month, with some of them reverting back to distance learning.

A family waves at a teacher driving by during a parade for Elmonica Elementary families.

A family waves at a teacher driving by during a pandemic parade for Elmonica Elementary families. COVID-19 has left many schools throughout Oregon short on teachers and staff, leading the state to relax standards for substitute teacher hiring. But many districts are not hiring those emergency substitute teachers.

Elizabeth Miller/OPB

“In addition to the demand Omicron has caused, the need for substitutes is higher this year as well due to position vacancies and COVID-related absences,” wrote Oregon Association of Education Service Districts executive director Amber Eaton in an email to OPB.

“The ‘demand’ is higher than the ‘supply’ at this time.”

A new state license created by the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission was seen as a solution to increasing the supply of substitute teachers. It loosened the requirements for being a classroom substitute to anyone 18 and older of “good moral character” who had the sponsorship of a school district or charter school.

Related: Portland parents, teachers express concerns about substitute hiring

“We are doing all we can, we have worked with the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission to ensure that schools have more direct pathways to provide other licensed individuals to be able to serve as substitute teachers,” said Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill at a January 13 media briefing.

At the time the license was announced, parents and teachers expressed concerns about the quality of new substitutes under these new licenses and whether they’d receive training.

“You’re talking about putting somebody in a classroom that does not have the training, does not know how to deal with discipline, does not know how to solve problems,” said Leslie Polson, president of the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association on OPB’s Think Out Loud back in October.

But whether people were hoping for help, or worried about creating new problems, not many districts are using the new license, according to the latest data from TSPC.

Since the Emergency Substitute Teaching License was announced in October, 390 licenses have been issued by 81 schools, districts, or education service districts, as of Jan 24.

Forest Grove, Eagle Point, and Grants Pass are the three school districts listed with the most emergency substitute teaching licenses.

There’s a couple of possible reasons districts aren’t using the emergency substitute license. For one, the education field is dealing with many of the same staffing challenges other industries face: not a lot of people applying for jobs.

“There are shortages in so many areas of the job market currently that we are competing for candidates, and we are not finding enough,” Eaton said.

But some districts also report using a different license to bring in substitutes.


Districts using different types of substitute teaching licenses

There are a few different teaching licenses for substitute teachers, but only one of them is new this year.

The emergency substitute license is the new license from October 2021. That’s the one that does not require a Bachelor’s degree, with eligible candidates needing sponsorship and being of “good moral character.”

The restricted substitute license is not new. The main difference between the new license and this one is that the new license does not require a Bachelor’s degree.

There’s also an emergency teaching license, which is typically used for single assignments that may last up to an entire year.

As of Jan. 24, Portland Public Schools has hired 91 out of 382 people who have applied for the emergency substitute teacher license. Another 154 of the applicants have moved past the interview stage and into other parts of the hiring process. Some who are not being hired have complained that they meet the qualifications, and should’ve been brought in to help fill teaching shortages.

But according to official state data, PPS is shown as having no emergency substitute teaching licenses and two emergency teaching licenses.

PPS’ Chief Human Resources officer Sharon Reese said that discrepancy might be due to a few things: individuals may not be “connected” with the district that sponsored their license or there may be a lag in finalizing paperwork for the license. And Reese says there’s another reason some of the recent subs may not show in state numbers: they’re instead using that “restricted” sub license.

That license is also the approach for substitute teachers from the High Desert Education Service District in central Oregon, which supports some of the largest school districts east of the Cascades.

“We’re a single place where we can do the recruitment and processing to have subs for our districts,” said Jayel Hayden, Director of Human Resources for the High Desert ESD. “And that larger pool that all of our districts can use to fill their substitute needs.”

The High Desert ESD typically has around 1,000 subs serving Bend-La Pine, Redmond, Sisters, Crook County, and other schools in the area. In 2021, Hayden took more than 300 inactive subs off the district’s rolls, and started recruiting for new substitutes. The loss came at a time when the ESD was struggling to fill substitute teacher requests.

“That purge, if you will, that we did, and staff being sick, was kind of a double hit for us on having unfilled jobs,” Hayden said.

Hayden said in October 2021, the ESD’s “fill rate” for licensed substitute teachers in Bend-La Pine was 65%. This month, he said it’s 95%.

“We’ve really brought in a lot more subs to be able to meet the needs of our largest district,” Hayden said.

There is still room to grow the ESD’s pool for classified substitutes, which includes positions based in special education classrooms. High Desert ESD’s “fill rate” for classified subs is at 60%, Hayden said.

Schools in central Oregon have also remained open despite other closures around the state. Hayden said that’s partly from the ESD filling sub positions as well as district staff stepping in to help.

Still, Eaton with the ESD association said some school administrators are using the new emergency license.

That includes two ESDs, according to TSPC’s data: the Northwest Regional ESD, which supports schools from Washington County to the Oregon Coast, and Region 18 ESD, which serves a few small districts in Wallowa County in northeastern Oregon.


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