With COVID staff absences, and subs in short supply, N.H. educators work overtime to keep school doors open

January 24, 2022

New Hampshire Public Radio | By Sarah Gibson

When Jessica Potter, the principal at Center Woods Elementary in Weare, planned for COVID-related absences this year, she and her staff booked every available substitute teacher months in advance.

But last week, the school had twice as many staff absences as available substitute teachers. So, Potter shifted gears: She reassigned special education staff. Office staff and the assistant principal covered classrooms. Potter herself even subbed for the school nurse.

“I liken it to triage every day with our staff,” she said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, schools in New Hampshire and across the country are reeling under ongoing staff shortages. More teachers are having to quarantine due to COVID, either because they’re sick themselves or they’re caring for sick family members. And substitute teachers — who’ve been in short supply for years — are now more critical than ever to keeping schools open.

While the pandemic has exacerbated existing staffing shortages, many school leaders in New Hampshire say the current crisis is years in the making. Substitute teacher schedules are unpredictable and the pay is low; even with recent increases, substitute teacher salaries in New Hampshire range from $75 to $125 a day. Many substitute teachers are older and haven’t worked during the pandemic due to concerns about COVID exposure.

All of this, combined with record COVID infections during January’s omicron surge, is making it hard for school leaders to keep doors open and continue in-person classes.

“[Staff] are pulling together despite how hard it is, but we can’t keep doing this,” Potter said. “This is so far from normal.”

This month, some districts have hired college students home for winter break to replenish the substitute teacher ranks. Julia Otero, an education major at University of New Hampshire, is one of them. She’s working as a substitute in the Pelham school district.

She’s covered positions across the school building due to COVID-related staff absences. Teachers help her find worksheets to keep students busy, but sometimes she’s on her own.

“I’m the teacher for an hour, then I do recess duty, then I’m lunch duty, then I’m a one-on-one, and then PALS [a program for students with special needs.] I do everything some days,” she said.

Pelham administrators say Otero is one of their star substitutes. But even with her enthusiasm, Otero said, the learning disruptions that come from staff absences are obvious. Students rarely learn new material when their regular teachers are out. Some are returning to school after being in COVID quarantine themselves and are already behind on work.

“They come back completely clueless of what the rest of the class has been doing for the week that they were gone,” she said. “And then when they come back and their teacher’s not here, it’s even harder for them.”

Otero and many other college students are headed back to campus this week, which means districts will have an even smaller pool of available substitute teachers.

And with so few substitutes available, many schools are turning to paraprofessionals to fill in the gaps. Those are staffers typically assigned to students with special learning needs, but in some schools with high COVID-related staff absences, they have become default substitute teachers as well.

Many districts pay paraprofessionals less than they could earn at local stores or fast-food restaurants. And several school leaders told NHPR that paraprofessionals are quitting amidst the stress of filling in for so many staff.

Of course, employers of all industries are grappling with high staff absences during the omicron surge. But where restaurants might reduce hours or white collar companies might ask employees to work from home, schools don’t have those options.

And after the frustration of remote and hybrid learning last year, there’s also enormous pressure from elected leaders and parents to keep schools open. Earlier this month, the state board of education adopted draft rules to prevent schools from counting remote class days towards minimum requirements. The rule, which must be approved by lawmakers before going into effect, would effectively limit COVID-related closures.

But school leaders say staying open is a daily struggle, and some have already closed temporarily.

Nashua school district recently closed for two days because of staff shortages. Two hundred staff were absent, many due to COVID, and the district had fewer than 50 substitutes available.

School leaders elsewhere say they’re trying to avoid school closures, but they won’t rule it out.

Potter, at Center Woods Elementary in Weare, said, in addition to being unsafe, an understaffed school is unsustainable. She realized this after a particularly hectic day earlier this month.

“We had just done everything we possibly could to cover and exhausted every single person – and people volunteered to cover – and at the end of the day, I sat back and said, ‘That was not a good idea. We should not have been open,’ ” she said.

Potter said some parents understand how much pressure the school’s under: A few who work part-time are substitute teaching on their days off. At this point, she said, keeping the school open every day is a community-wide effort.