The struggle with subs

COVID-19 leaves RBUSD with a shortage of substitute teachers

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has moved in as a substitute for the Delta strain, but for teachers within Redondo Beach Unified School District (RBUSD), finding a replacement isn’t so easy.

RBUSD has a severe shortage of substitute teachers to take the place of sick teachers, according to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Nicole Wesley. Wesley is in charge of hiring substitute teachers and placing them where needed in the RBUSD school sites.

“It’s no secret that this year has been more of a struggle,” Wesley said. “And it’s no secret that we’ve had more teacher absences this year. I would go as far as to say that we’ve had the most absences [when we returned to school after winter break] district-wide than ever before.” 

According to Wesley, in a typical school year during any given week, an average of 24 teachers are absent across the entire school district. In contrast, on Jan. 13, 31 staff members were absent due to COVID at RUHS alone. District-wide, 131 staff members were absent due to COVID. 

“This year has been more difficult not only because there are more absences, but also because we do have some substitutes who are afraid to work because of COVID, who may be experiencing COVID symptoms or positive cases themselves,” Wesley said.

Long time substitute teacher Kelby Bruno thinks that there’s more to the issue than just high levels of absentees. She believes that the substitute pool has also shrunk dramatically during the pandemic. 

“The lack of subs is a two-fold problem. During the lockdown, there were substitute teachers that decided not to come back and some went into early retirement. So that’s part of the pool getting smaller. And then also a lot of substitutes don’t feel comfortable being in an environment with lots of germs,” Bruno said. 

Bruno, however, was happy to return to substitute teaching and now fills in for absent teachers three to five days a week.

“When crisis hits, I sort of go into a mode of helping people and I wasn’t scared to get out into the community,” Bruno said. “I’m back to work, and I love it.”

While Bruno was ecstatic to be teaching, many other substitutes were more reluctant to come back to school. RBUSD has employed several different strategies in order to resolve the shortage. First, Wesley looks to the in-house substitute pool. This pool has a little over 100 substitute teachers who are contacted when a staff member reports that they will be absent. However, due to the climbing number of teacher absences and the fact that many substitutes are reluctant to work during the pandemic, this is no longer enough. 

“In addition to that, we have contracted out with a third party vendor called

Scoot, which has been instrumental in helping us fill sub vacancies as well, because we can’t always fill them with our in-house sub pool,” Wesley said.

However, the caveat of using third party vendors is that other school districts are using the same vendors to fill their own vacancies, causing competition between the local districts to staff substitutes.    

“Recently, before the winter break, we increased our substitute pay rates to encourage and reward and entice substitutes who work in our district,” Wesley said.

When these tactics fail to bring in the amount of substitute teachers required to fill all the vacancies, RBUSD must find other ways to fill the spots of absent teachers.

“Once we see which classes aren’t covered, we try to be creative by filling them with teachers who are willing to give up their conference period and cover a class,” Wesley said.

In a last ditch effort, sometimes substitute teachers may have to be transferred between schools in order to fill classes. Wesley noted filling the vacancy is like solving a puzzle. 

“For instance, recently, Parras had ten teachers out and they were able to fill all the classes with the exception of two. So we called over to two different elementary schools and asked them to send a substitute over,” Wesely said.

Despite the challenge in filling the substitute positions during times when COVID surges, Wesley emphasized that there is still reason to be grateful.

“I think it’s important to recognize that if it weren’t for the substitute teachers that we had out there and the patience of our students and our staff, we wouldn’t be in as good a shape as we are,” Wesley said.