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Students across Minnesota are back in classrooms this year, but school districts are scrambling to make sure there is someone to instruct them, especially when their regular teacher needs a day off.

A shortage of substitute teachers is forcing schools to try new strategies to staff schools each day, including raising pay and pleas to parents who might be interested in getting licensed to fill in. The state's teacher licensing board even suggested that schools preemptively license every staff member with a bachelor's degree, including janitors and nurses, to increase the pool of possible substitutes.

"It continues to be a significant challenge is what I'm hearing from our school superintendents," said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. "On any given day, they can be dozens short."

The teacher shortage predates the COVID-19 pandemic, but many school leaders say it has worsened because the retired teachers who often worked as substitutes have been leery of returning to the classroom. At the same time, the pandemic means teachers may be absent more often if they need to quarantine or care for family members.

When there's no substitute, districts sometimes combine classrooms or look to administrators and other staff to plug holes, Croonquist said: "It's just kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach they have to take."

There's no statewide data on how dire the problem has become because no agency tracks teacher absences or unfilled requests for short-term substitutes, said Alex Liuzzi, executive director of the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.

But at Teachers On Call, a Bloomington company that contracts with 103 Minnesota districts to provide substitutes, Al Sowers said demand has increased by 40% since 2019-20, the last "normal" school year.

Sowers, Teachers On Call's vice president and practice leader, said his company can fill just over 70% of the vacancies compared with 90 to 93% before the pandemic. He gets about 1,000 requests for subs daily with students learning in person again this year.

"Now we get back to an in-school environment and substitute teacher pools have really been strained," he said.

A broader problem

Many district officials described a constant staff shuffle this fall. Administrators must at times cancel classes, such as music at the elementary level, or tell teachers they won't get a prep period because they have to sub in another classroom that day. Some days, principals and district administrators teach.

The sub shortage mirrors a general teacher shortage, with demographic shifts and retiring baby boomers.

"It's a workforce shortage problem combined with more [teacher] absences," said Kenyatta McCarty, executive director of human resources for St. Paul Public Schools. "We're struggling, similar to everyone else."

Every day, between 170 and 281 St. Paul teachers are absent, compared with 150 to 225 before the pandemic, she said. And the vacant teaching jobs that weren't filled this fall need subs, too.

Sarah Kriewall, director of the employee services department for Anoka-Hennepin schools, said her district also struggled to find subs. She said one factor may be the expectation that teachers and students wear masks at the elementary level when COVID-19 transmission rates are high. "Some [substitutes] don't want to wear a mask all day, every day," she said.

At Blaine High School, classes without teachers are sometimes combined in the media center where students work independently online, supervised by a permanent substitute.

Levi Murphy has been subbing for about five years and likes the job's variety and flexibility to choose schools with varied hours.

He subbed in St. Paul until this year, when he also began working in districts like Hopkins and St. Louis Park through Teachers On Call. He suspects many substitutes dropped out of the workforce when the pandemic pushed schools into distance learning and sub jobs were almost nonexistent, he said.

"I think a huge portion of the subs had to find other work," he said. "There's no safety net."

He said he feels bad that he can't do more to help schools in need, sometimes weighing choices between a high school computer science class or a kindergarten room.

"You just feel like, 'I can only take one of these jobs,' " he said.

Appealing to parents

Lisa Carlson, principal at Woodland Elementary in Eagan, said the never-ending search for subs is stressful for staff. About a month ago, she tried something new: calling families and asking them to fill in.

"I gave a shout-out: 'Who do you know who's interested in making some extra money?' " she said. "We pay $165 a day, which is great pay."

The state allows anyone with a bachelor's degree to be a short-term substitute teacher once they submit a transcript and pass a background check to get licensed.

Carlson emphasized the job's flexibility and that the district will train subs. Nine or 10 parents are now getting licensed, she said.

Districts are also investing heavily in recruiting and are paying substitutes more, from Anoka-Hennepin to St. Paul and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan.

Maggie Sullivan, senior human resources officer with Minneapolis Public Schools, said the district has invested about $4 million in solving the sub shortage this year. That included raising daily pay rates from $160 to $192 for short-call subs and from $170 to $204 for long-term subs, and spending about $3 million to staff a full-time substitute position at 30 of its schools, Sullivan said.

Officials with several districts also mentioned partnering with college education programs, since some December graduates could help out right away.

Sowers, from Teachers On Call, doesn't expect demand to ease anytime soon. Schools and students need teachers more than ever, he said.

"We need to do something in the state of Minnesota to start attracting more people to education as a profession," he said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781