Will schools have enough substitute teachers during pandemic? Rules are relaxed, but concerns remain.

Stephen Gruber-Miller
Des Moines Register
Julie Morocho poses for a portrait at her home on July 31, 2020 in Urbandale. The substitute teacher at Waukee's South Middle School will not return to in-person teaching in the fall due to having an 11-year old with higher coronavirus risks. 30 percent of the entire workforce of teachers is over 50 years of age, Morocho said. "Substitute teaching is hard. We don't get benefits. We get paid per day, a set amount. We get [Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System], but these people are also gonna go into this thinking, 'I'm going to get paid per day.' They're going to get sick and they're not going to have any health insurance."

Julie Morocho has been a substitute teacher in Waukee for the last three years. But she won't be going back to teach there this fall.

With an 11-year-old son at higher risk for coronavirus complications, Morocho, 35, said she doesn't feel comfortable going back to teach in a district that plans to return to in-person learning this fall.

"I can’t risk taking it home to my family and letting anybody get sick," she said.

As Iowa school districts prepare for students to return to classrooms in a few weeks to an environment dramatically altered by the coronavirus pandemic, they're grappling with concerns about the health and safety of students and staff. Morocho's decision highlights another complicated piece of the equation: Will districts have enough substitute teachers?

Julie Morocho poses for a portrait with her son, Oscar, at her home on July 31, 2020 in Urbandale. The substitute teacher at Waukee's South Middle School will not return to in-person teaching in the fall due to having an 11-year old with higher coronavirus risks. 30 percent of the entire workforce of teachers is over 50 years of age, Morocho said. "Substitute teaching is hard. We don't get benefits. We get paid per day, a set amount. We get [Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System], but these people are also gonna go into this thinking, 'I'm going to get paid per day.' They're going to get sick and they're not going to have any health insurance."

It's all but certain that some full-time teachers will need to take extra time off during the coming school year, either because they have become infected with the coronavirus and need to isolate or need to quarantine following a possible exposure.

Substitute teachers, often retired teachers, may be at a higher risk for virus complications themselves because of their age. Or, like Morocho, they may have a family member who's at risk, causing them to wrestle with whether they're comfortable being back in a classroom.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has said that schools are required to have at least half of their instruction in person and loosened requirements for substitute teachers in an effort to expand the pool of available educators.

Substitutes weighing whether to teach

Morocho is hoping she can find a way to substitute virtually or in a district with an online-heavy plan. But she's taking things one day at a time.

"If there’s one skill that a substitute teacher has to have ... it’s flexibility so I’m blessed to have that personality that I can do that," she said.

Other substitutes say they're comfortable returning to the classroom this fall.

Pat Hansen, a retired teacher who lives in Orange City in northwest Iowa, said she believes the MOC-Floyd Valley school district is taking adequate precautions.

"I plan on wearing a mask and taking care of myself," Hansen said.

Hansen, 69, has taught for 43 years in the Fort Dodge and MOC-Floyd Valley school districts before retiring in 2018. She's worked as a substitute since.

"I don’t have any underlying health concerns but I am careful about it anyway just because when you’re older, you should be, so I wear masks and everything already," she said.

Janelle Woodin, a 30-year-old science teacher at Johnston High School, said she's thinking about the school district's request of teachers to stay home if they feel like they have coronavirus symptoms — which could be similar to allergy or flu symptoms. The schools will need substitutes to come in and cover that time, even if it's just a few days until the full-time teachers can be tested.

"If things come back negative, then you’ve used up some of that sick leave," she said. "And then what if later on they actually get it and then need more time? What if we can’t find subs? I start to see it as a bigger Tetris puzzle later on especially with the flu season."

Rules loosened for who can substitute

Even before COVID-19, there was a shortage of substitute teachers in Iowa, said Des Moines teacher Jeanna Joyce.

Joyce, 40, is a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Hiatt Middle School. During her first year as a teacher two years ago, she said she taught half the time and substituted the other half.

"I only substituted at Hiatt, and they were in such need of substitutes that even as teachers we were constantly covering classes ... Last year, I was a full-time teacher and very rarely did we get a planning period because, as teachers, we were covering each other’s classes," she said.

In mid-July, Reynolds signed a proclamation requiring school districts to conduct half of their instruction in person, with some exceptions. Her proclamation also loosened restrictions on substitute teachers, para-educators and technical instructors.

The move opens up substitute authorizations to those with an associate's degree or 60 hours of college coursework rather than a bachelor's degree, and lowers the age requirement for substitutes from 21 years to 20. The proclamation also lifts a cap that limited how long substitutes could work in a classroom during one job assignment.

Pat Garrett, the governor's spokesperson, said Reynolds worked with the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa Department of Education and Board of Educational Examiners "to find solutions to emphasize in-person learning when the school year resumes."

"Throughout the pandemic, her office worked to reduce regulations so Iowans could innovate and adapt to the unprecedented times. She also believes that maintaining the teacher workforce is critical and by expanding the pool to those with additional educational backgrounds, para-educators, or those who already have served in the classroom, we will keep our kids learning," Garrett said in a statement.

Joyce, who attended a "Drive for Lives" protest of Reynolds' education proclamation at the Iowa Capitol on July 24, said she's angry the governor changed the rules for substitutes because it is an acknowledgment that teachers will get sick during in-person teaching.

"The governor knows that teachers are going to get sick and that we are not going to be at school for long periods of time," she said.

On Thursday, Reynolds detailed guidance for what school staff should do if they feel sick. That guidance recommends staff stay home if they have symptoms and getting tested for the coronavirus. But it also says teachers and other school staff who have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 may be considered "critical personnel" and could be allowed to keep working if there are staffing shortages and they remain asymptomatic.

More:Iowa counties must hit a 15% positive coronavirus test rate before schools can go online-only, governor says

'We anticipate the need for substitutes to be greater'

Districts are already taking advantage of the new looser substitute rules. The Johnston Community School District is working to recruit new substitute teachers from the groups that are now eligible to work in classrooms, Director of Communications Laura Sprague wrote in an email. The district has 216 active substitutes.

"We have had little difficulty finding subs in the past," Sprague said. "We anticipate the need for substitutes to be greater this year than in past years."

Des Moines Public Schools typically uses 200 to 250 substitute teachers and associates per day, said Nicole Wichman, a human resources supervisor in charge of the district's substitute center.

She said the district does not expect that number to change this year but officials will be working to recruit new substitutes with associate's degrees and those that are 20 years old.

Wichman said district officials have been in touch with its substitutes through phone calls, newsletters, emails and postcards since March to keep them up to date on the district's plans for reopening. While some substitutes have expressed concerns, the majority are willing to continue teaching either in person or virtually.

"We will prioritize any situation with virtual learning for those substitutes that do not want to return to in-person at this time," Wichman said.

Iowa City school board member J.P. Claussen said that while his district hasn't seen a large number of teacher retirements, he's been receiving anxious emails from teachers about how the school year will work.

"Getting good subs is always a challenge," he said.

Can new substitutes handle the challenges?

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek understands the need to make adjustments due to the coronavirus. But, he said, the association does not want to see the loosened substitute rules remain in place beyond the pandemic.

"We understand that there needs to be conversation at the local level on how to fill those positions when someone is ill," the union official said. "And with this change in requirements to be a substitute teacher, that seems to be a logical solution in a crisis time."

Joyce said substitutes with less experience may not be trained to address students' social and emotional needs. She said she doesn't believe Reynolds is valuing education by loosening the requirements for who can teach.

"She's saying that we need you to be our free community daycare and it doesn’t matter who’s in the classroom as long as there’s an adult watching these children so that parents can go to work. So, as a teacher, that shows me I’m not valued," Joyce said.

Hansen, the Orange City substitute, said she's open to allowing people with relevant experience to substitute teach in certain areas. But her training as a teacher allows her to teach the lesson that's needed when she substitutes.

"I'm just not a warm body sitting there," she said.

"People who think you can just step in and anyone can teach, that’s a fallacy," she said. "It’s a profession."

Woodin, the Johnston science teacher, said the idea of loosening requirements for substitutes "makes me raise an eyebrow," especially given the added challenges of teaching during a pandemic.

"They could be taking a job — because look at the unemployment rate right now — to get money and they have no idea what they’re stepping into," she said. "And it’s not even going to be a normal classroom. It’s going to be a COVID classroom. What that’s going to look like, we don’t even know yet."

Iowa City Press-Citizen reporter Hillary Ojeda contributed to this report.

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at sgrubermil@registermedia.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.

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