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With Students Back In School, Ohio's Substitute Teachers Are In Short Supply

CCS Superintendent Talisa Dixon talks to a student during a return to in-person learning last week..
Columbus City Schools
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CCS Superintendent Talisa Dixon talks to a student during a return to in-person learning last week..

Substitute teachers have been a scarce resource in Central Ohio for years, and the pandemic just worsened the understaffing. Some districts have been unable to fill more than half of their need for subs, and are raising pay as a result.

Whitehall City Schools deputy superintendent Mark Trace says that getting enough substitute teachers has been especially difficult lately.

“We have some very loyal substitutes who come here every year,” Trace says. “Some of them are kind of taking the year off, basically. And I’ve contacted them to see if they would be willing to come back, and some of them, as I said, were taking the year off.”

Whitehall is one of 29 public and private school districts and learning centers in Central Ohio that uses the Educational Service Center (ESC) of Central Ohio to hire substitute teachers. ESC operates a system that links subs with jobs at individual schools.

In the latest ESC data available on the 2020-21 school year, by the end of January, only five districts have been able to find subs for 90% or more of their openings. Most districts have a success rate between 50-90%.

Whitehall City Schools sits second-to-last in success at filling substitute teachers, at 46%. In January 2020, before the pandemic, Whitehall's sub rate was 78%.

The district with the worst success rate in finding subs is Hamilton Township, at 43%.

Pay rates vary among districts. Whitehall is one of 14 schools under the ESC that pays $100 a day for subs, a rate that's remained stable for several years. However, the district adds $25 a day for teachers who work more than 31 days. And after 75 days of teaching, a sub can receive a $1,000 incentive payment.

Trace says he thinks that COVID-19, not the pay, has prevented some regular substitute teachers from working.

“We have some folks that may have underlying health conditions, so they were being cautious and making sure they were doing all the things their doctor had told them to do,” Trace says.

Columbus City Schools, which manages its own substitute teachers, admits its success rate has fallen over the past three years, from 70% to 63% in 2020.

Today, 474 active subs are available to the district, less than half of its goal of 1,000.

Last fall, during a virtual Columbus Board of Education meeting, executive director of human resources Michael DeFabbo pushed for a sub pay boost from $95 to $126 a day. After 60 days of work, the pay rises to $220 per day with benefits.

DeFabbo's proposal was approved.

“We’re the largest school district in Central Ohio,” DeFabbo said in a YouTube recording of the Board of Education meeting. “We should be paying the best that we can and the most attractive offer where possible.”

Two years ago, Gahanna-Jefferson Schools raised its sub pay from $95 to $115 per day. Its sub fill-in rate for this school year is at 81%.

Retired teacher Regina Webster has been a substitute at Gahanna Lincoln High School for four years. More so than the higher pay, Webster says that convenience is important for her – she lives only a mile from the high school.

Webster recognizes this school year has been tougher for some substitutes, although she has not worried about her own health during the pandemic.

“I really enjoy working with kids,” Webster says. “I think that they really needed an education, and it was sad that they’ve been out for so long.  And my heart is in teaching and I wanted to be there and help.”

Webster was looking forward to seeing students in person full time.

“I’d make sure I have my mask on, wash my hands, do all the things you’re supposed to do,” says Webster. “I’m not going to focus on worrying about it.”

Doug Behnke with the ESC says that, while higher pay may improve some results, that’s not always a motivating factor.

“Most of our substitute teachers work in the district where they reside,” Behnke says. “So that often times carries more weight than the daily rate.”

Trace is optimistic things will improve for Whitehall soon.

“I think everyone sees a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully, and hopefully we can get back to some kind of normalcy and get back to educating students the way we normally do,” says Trace.

What questions do you have about COVID-19 and Ohio's response? Ask below and WOSU may answer as part of our series A Year Of COVID.

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