High School Reform

Sub shortage leaves schools scrambling when teachers call in sick

And makeshift solutions hurt vulnerable students the most

Niagara Falls High School’s veteran secretary Teresa Kurilovitch takes the first stab at solving the day’s substitute teacher shortage, a task that can be a logistical nightmare.

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — It’s 7 a.m. on a Friday and Teresa Kurilovitch already knows it’s going to be a rough day. Twenty-one teachers are absent, and as a veteran secretary in the Niagara Falls High School office, she takes the first stab at finding replacements.

This diverse, urban, high-poverty school district on the New York-Canadian border often has more absences than substitute teachers to fill them. But this day is particularly bad in the high school, with absences likely made more numerous by parent-teacher conferences the night before and the frigid temperature during an otherwise mild winter. Only 12 substitutes are available. That means nine unfilled positions, each with an average of five classes. And the secretary who normally helps Kurilovitch make sure every class has an adult to lead it is also absent today.

Kurilovitch is working from a series of folders, each one with an absent teacher’s schedule paper-clipped to the outside. Post-its identify which teachers are covering which classes as Kurilovitch works her way through the pile.

The process is like triage. Robert Bradley, the school’s main principal, stands by, ready to help think through the options. Some students start school at 7:20 a.m. with an early first period. They are the current priority.

“My goal right now is to take care of the early group and then the next goal is, how far can I get?” Bradley said. “If I can get two hours into the day, I’ll take it. Then later I’ll deal with the rest of the day.”

Once the pool of substitutes is exhausted, Kurilovitch turns to teachers who have duty periods. Instead of monitoring halls or helping in the main office when they’re not leading their own classes, these teachers will be asked to fill in for their colleagues.

Consultant teachers and teaching assistants who help with smaller groups of students throughout the school day are also fair game for being pulled in to cover gaps. The same is true for literacy and math coaches, who normally visit classrooms to provide real-time professional development for teachers. From there, social workers, guidance counselors, administrators and even Bradley will be called to the front of a classroom if needed. When that is the case, it means fewer teachers can provide targeted support to students, coaches aren’t available to help instructors hone their craft and administrative duties get put on the back burner.

Niagara Falls City School District Superintendent Mark Laurrie, who rose to his position after more than 30 years in the district, said the current shortage in substitute teachers is unprecedented. There once was a time when the district had long lists of qualified teachers willing to work as substitutes in hopes of being in the right place at the right time when a position became available.

Now Laurrie says there are no lists at all in special education, science and math.

“It has really risen to a level of concern in the last year and a half,” Laurrie said. “I’ve never seen it this dire.”

The Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit, California-based education think tank, estimates U.S. schools were about 64,000 teachers short during the 2015-16 school year, with shortages most common in special education, math, science and bilingual education. Sometimes struggling schools resort to hiring less-qualified teachers or turn to long-term substitutes to fill these gaps, further reducing the pool of teachers available to cover daily absences.

Niagara Falls High School serves about 2,000 students on the New York-Canadian border and substitute teacher shortages mean it’s often a scramble to get an adult in every classroom.

In general, the institute found that districts with concentrated poverty and high proportions of students of color are more likely than their counterparts to have trouble filling open positions.

“As is always the case in this country, students of color bear the brunt of the problem,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the institute. (In the Niagara Falls City School District, 56 percent of students are children of color and 75 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.)

Nationwide, slightly more than 1 in 4 teachers missed 10 days of school or more during the 2013-14 school year, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of the most recent federal data. This leaves substitutes with a critical role in educating the nation’s students.

But, as in Niagara Falls, substitutes are getting increasingly hard to find. For example, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools conducted a survey last fall and found that across 400 Illinois districts, 18 percent of total weekly absences could not be covered by substitutes because of a lack of supply. In southern Illinois, where the problem was most severe, 26 percent of teacher absences went unfilled by subs each week.

Different states have different policies when it comes to who can lead a classroom as a substitute. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s database of teacher contracts (which includes about 150 of the largest school districts nationwide), Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana and Virginia are among the states that allow substitutes to teach with as little as a high school diploma or GED. There is no minimum education requirement in Idaho, New York, Texas or Utah.

Regardless of these requirements, turning to substitutes at all can create cause for concern. Research shows that academic achievement declines the more days students spend with subs.

Niagara Falls High School teachers have five classes and a duty period each day. When they can’t come to work and there aren’t enough subs, the logistical gymnastics begin.

In a district where children are already behind, Niagara Falls’ Laurrie has particular reason to worry. In 2016, the district’s high school graduation rate was 64 percent, compared to New York State’s 79 percent. Just 23 percent of students in grades three through eight were “proficient” on state standards in English language arts and 21 percent in math. Even though teachers have a right to take days off, Laurrie said administrators emphasize the importance of attendance.

“Our test scores aren’t where they should be. Our results aren’t where I want them to be,” Laurrie said. “Our kids need every minute in front of a certified content specialist that they already have a relationship with.”

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At 7:26 a.m. in the Niagara Falls High School office, teacher Edward Ventry walks in to say that a class of students is standing in the hallway upstairs. Their teacher is absent, but for some reason that didn’t show up in the system. No substitute has been sent up to cover the room. And Ventry himself is on the way out. He’s the coach for the bowling team and his students made it to sectionals. Although he told the staff in the athletics department he would need someone to cover his day’s math classes, the news didn’t make it to the main office.

Now Kurilovitch has two extra absences to cover, bringing the total to 23.

At 7:30 a.m., two other principals, Carrie Buchman and Lynne Tompkins, stop in to the office to help Kurilovitch brainstorm solutions. Tompkins points out that one teacher who has been selected to cover a period has been pulled off of her own schedule a lot lately. She gets a reprieve. Buchman suggests an alternative.

Teachers walking by the main office get pulled in. Some jokingly avert their eyes or attempt a getaway: They know what’s coming. But they all agree to help.

Some teachers even give up their planning periods to pitch in, though that may end up causing problems later. Based on an agreement with the union, teachers who take additional duties during their planning periods enough times earn an extra day off. This, of course, creates the potential for substitute shortages in the future.

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s database shows that most schools offer at least 10 sick and personal days to teachers each year, on top of the standard vacation schedule. Outliers include Toledo, Ohio, where public school teachers get as many as 26 paid leave days, and Burlington, Vermont, where the district gives 24.

In Niagara Falls, teachers get about 15 days to use for personal reasons, illness or bereavement.

Amber Dutton, Berenice Nieves Ortiz and Kristy Jones (clockwise from left) work on a worksheet in their geometry class being staffed by a substitute.

Paid leave allowances for teachers are similar to what other salaried professionals get, on average, though other fields don’t have the added benefit of extra vacation around the holidays and summers off. Still, Darling-Hammond at the Learning Policy Institute said there is wide variability across schools in the extent to which teachers actually take their sick and personal days.

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Some states are considering teacher absenteeism as a potential metric for new accountability frameworks, and New York is one of them.

“It is a problem, when you have high rates of teacher absence,” Darling-Hammond said. “It signals that there’s a problem in the school culture, and it also signals that there is another source of obstacles for kids and learning.”

By 8:05 a.m., Niagara Falls High School’s approximately 2,000 students are in the building. The day has officially started, and while all the early morning classes will have teachers in them, Kurilovitch and the team of administrators are still figuring out final arrangements for later periods.

At 8:27 a.m., Kurilovitch realizes that two classes — 70 students — will be in the library computer lab at the same time later that day. They won’t all fit. This bit of troubleshooting is one of the final tasks of the morning’s logistical gymnastics.

From there, it’s just a matter of making sure the plan that was put together first thing in the morning stays together until the last bell rings at 3 p.m.

As classes get underway, substitute teachers with mismatched certifications or no certifications at all take attendance and pass out worksheets. These arrangements aren’t uncommon, and students with content-specific questions often have to turn to their peers or wait until their teacher returns to school.

Tenth-graders Kristy Jones, Amber Dutton and Berenice Nieves Ortiz attempt a worksheet together in their geometry class, staffed today by a substitute certified in English, theater, music and art. Their regular teacher routinely explains new content via videos that students are supposed to watch for homework, so his absence doesn’t mean a skipped lecture. But the girls are frustrated by questions they can’t answer themselves. They say the videos are often complicated, and class time is frequently used to ask questions. Today there is no one to ask.

Physical education also presents a challenge. It’s the only subject in which health concerns limit who can actually take over the curriculum. Very few substitutes are certified in physical education, and New York State law is strict on the issue. No certification means no gym time.

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On this particular day, students deposit their backpacks in their lockers, change into their gym clothes and show up to the pool before realizing their teacher is absent. While most have schoolwork that they could be doing during this time, without any of their materials, the period ends up being a waiting game in the library. Some students happily play games in the computer lab, but others complain about the setup.

These absences — and the threat of them — can create another type of waiting game, too. Teachers who want to take a day off for professional development purposes often have to get in line.

Ed Ceccato, a long-time math teacher in the district, teaches a college statistics course through the Niagara University Senior Term Enrichment Program, or NUSTEP. His juniors and seniors earn college credit — at a discounted cost — while taking the class at Niagara Falls High School. Every year, the university hosts a professional development day for teachers in the program, but Ceccato expects that his participation will be contingent on that day’s staff attendance.

“They’ll probably say you have to come into the building and if we have someone who can cover you, [go], if not, we need you to stay,” Ceccato said, while monitoring the physical education class passing time in the library.

He was originally scheduled for hallway duty, but as has happened seven or eight times already this school year, Ceccato is covering a colleague’s absence.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about race and equity.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a Boston-based freelance reporter who specializes in education news for print and online media outlets. Find her online at taragm.com. See Archive