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With 12 Ortega Middle School teachers scheduled to be out on Dec. 10, administrators of the Alamosa School District suddenly had to weigh their last-resort option: closing school.

Assistant Superintendent Luis Murillo and his team “briefly” considered the idea, but instead scrambled to find staff to help cover classrooms, drafting Alamosa Online School employees — including the principal — to sub for the day.

Murillo, himself, stationed himself at the school in case he was needed in a classroom during the half day of classes. He also asked Alamosa High School’s principal and assistant principal to be on call.

“We need all hands on deck because school means a lot more to our community than education,” Murillo said, citing students who rely on school for meals and who depend on their teachers for support.

The struggle to keep schools open has become an all-too-familiar bind for Colorado districts as they seek to recruit enough substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who may be sick or on vacation.

While some schools have had to temporarily close without enough subs or other staff to stand in for educators, others have asked top-level school and district administrators to assume the role of sub for a day.

Schools have also pulled paraprofessionals from their regular duties of assisting students who need additional help and offered a small bonus to teachers to sacrifice a planning period and cover a class in need. And schools have at times combined classes, which means a class of 20 students could immediately swell to a class of 40.

They’re drastic measures that stretch already overwhelmed teachers and administrators, but they’re often the only ways that school leaders can keep their schools humming.

“It’s a give and take,” Murillo said, noting he’s glad that classes could continue on Dec. 10, but not without a cost.

Colorado is now facing a statewide shortage of subs, accelerated by the pandemic, said Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the Colorado Department of Education.

The state already lacked enough subs before the pandemic. Nineteen months in, with more teacher absences related to COVID-19, schools need even more subs, O’Neil said.

But the challenges run deeper than complications that have emerged during the pandemic.

Some of the state’s smaller communities simply don’t have many local residents who have the availability and flexibility needed to sub, O’Neil said.

Plus, substitute teaching is far from an easy job, despite public perception that it’s a breezy way to earn money, O’Neil emphasized. Subs must be ready to walk into any classroom level with children they don’t know and effectively teach lessons they don’t prepare, she said.

“When you think about it, it’s actually a very difficult job,” O’Neil said, “and because we have such a need for substitutes so quickly, it’s hard to get them the kind of training they need and the kind of support.”

Pay can be another barrier. Colorado subs typically earn between $100 and $120 a day, O’Neil said, with opportunities to take home up to $200 a day for subs with more credentials and experience and who want to become a long-term sub, meaning they’re in the position for more than two weeks.

The low end of the payscale is equivalent to the minimum wage of $12.32 an hour. In October, the average hourly wage in Colorado was $32.65, or $261.20 for an eight-hour day.

“When there’s a multitude of other jobs, that can be a challenge for people,” she said.

And subs usually must be flexible with their own schedules and families as teachers who become sick and need a sub call in the morning of the day they’ll be out.

Impact on kids from sub shortages

The last-minute nature of schools’ demands for subs keeps leaders like Murillo, of Alamosa School District, constantly questioning whether his schools will have enough subs day to day.

“That level of not knowing and uncertainty, it’s adding an extra layer of stress,” Murillo said.

The rural district of nearly 2,200 students — which has not had to close any schools this year because of staff and sub shortages — needs about 100 subs but at various times during the school year has had as few as 25 subs.

On some days, the district has needed about 45 subs and, similar to Dec. 10 at the middle school, has had to turn to its own staff to oversee classrooms, Murillo said.

The district took a bold step this year, hiring a full-time sub for each of its four schools at the pay rate of a teacher with benefits. It doesn’t fix the district’s shortage, “but at least they have someone there for sure,” Murillo said. He added that the district is assessing its budget to see if it could hire another full-time sub for each school.

In addition to advertising about its need for subs on the district website and through the local newspaper, the Valley Courier, the district relies on word of mouth to attract more subs and has also started branching out to gain the attention of a new demographic: college students.

The district actively works to recruit college students from both Adams State University and Trinidad State College to sub — an experience that Murillo equates to a “mini internship” that can be a source of income for students. But most of Alamosa School District’s regular subs are retired teachers who are a little bit older, Murillo said. Some worry about stepping inside a classroom and putting themselves or their families at risk of COVID.

“People are scared,” he said. “People don’t want to get sick. People don’t want to be exposed even more.”

Retired teacher Sheryl Josselyn, 61, subbed for the district for the first time in early December, unafraid after getting vaccinated. She was part of the collective effort Dec. 10 to keep classes running at Ortega Middle School, where she taught for 28 years.

Josselyn, whose teaching career in science spanned 32 years total, fell right back into her groove at the front of the classroom, prepared for any students who might be bold enough to test her patience. She decided to return to school as a sub to help the district overcome its sub shortage — “a crisis” in her mind as teachers continue to have to step in to cover each others’ classes.

“I honestly am not doing it for the money,” Josselyn said. “It is just horrible, and it was horrible last year as a teacher.”

She’s particularly alarmed as paraprofessionals are plucked from their role coaching students one-on-one and in small groups to sub. She doesn’t blame the district for using those staff members when its schools are in a pinch, but “it’s very frustrating.”

“The kids are the ones that really feel the impact of that,” Josselyn said.

Weld RE-1 needs at least 10 more subs

Weld County RE-1, which serves students living in Gilcrest, LaSalle and Platteville, has also been forced to deploy teachers to cover classrooms when their colleagues are out and schools are low on subs.

The rural district of about 1,900 students currently has a list of about 30 subs, though not all are available when they’re needed, said Superintendent Johan van Nieuwenhuizen.

“It seems like a nice number to have, but we have many days that we cannot fill all the positions,” he said, noting that at least 10 more subs would be ideal.

The demand for subs this year has escalated for the northern Colorado district as it’s amassed close to 1,000 teacher leave requests since the start of the school year in August — double compared to the number of requests it tallied in the same time period during the last school year, van Nieuwenhuizen said.

That feeds into a cycle of stress and a strain on the mental health of school staff, he said, as educators forgo planning periods and breaks to take over for a teacher who is out.

The district leader suspects that factors into this year’s high rate of teacher absenteeism “because they are truly overwhelmed.”

Part of van Nieuwenhuizen’s effort to tackle his district’s sub shortage involves helping teachers with their mental wellness. He excuses teachers early on professional development days so that they can go home and care for themselves.

The district has also hired an extra educator, known as a “resident substitute,” in each of its schools and pays for paraprofessionals to get a substitute license so they can be recruited to sub and earn more money than they otherwise would. Additionally, the district raised daily pay for subs from $100 to $120, though van Nieuwenhuizen knows many jobs outside of education pay more.

“If we don’t have somebody that really is invested in making a difference in some young person’s life,” he said, “it’s really hard to recruit somebody.”

Douglas County calls on the cabinet

On the Friday before Labor Day, Amanda Thompson was not in her district administration office like usual.

The chief human resources officer for Douglas County Schools spent her morning helping students at Larkspur Elementary School complete art lessons. In the afternoon she led Trailblazer Elementary School students through a science experiment studying buoyancy and density.

That day, the district was unable to fill every request for a sub. Fridays are a historically tough day to find subs, not just for DCSD, she said. Cabinet members stepped in.

“A very good portion of cabinet and district leaders,” Thompson said.

Though she works in central administration, Thompson remains a licensed educator. The former administrator and teacher has spent 18 years in education. She and other DCSD leadership with teaching licenses were back in the classroom Sept. 3 amid a brief sub shortage.

Unlike some neighboring districts— where schools closed temporarily last month among staff shortages — that day was an exception for DCSD, Thompson said.

For the past year, the district’s sub pool has comprised about 900 people and the district has managed to cover 95%-98% of classrooms needing a sub.

“Overall, our sub numbers continue to increase as we continually recruit and hire,” Thompson said.

The district relies on student teachers, retirees, classified staff and people in the community who become licensed.

Parents sometimes become subs because the work allows them to get involved at their children’s school and the hours align with their student’s school day, she said.

Thompson credits the superintendent for making a call to the community, urging people to become subs. The district launched a hiring push during the 2020-21 school year and brought on roughly 150 more subs that fall semester.

To keep attracting subs, the district has raised its base pay to $150 a day and $170 on Fridays. DCSD also reimburses subs for the fees they pay for licensing and background checks required for the job.

Recruitment is never done, Thompson emphasized. There is no magic number for when the sub pool is full enough, and the district is more focused on maintaining high fill rates.

“I cannot emphasize enough how grateful we are that our parents and our community members are willing to step in,” she said.

Denver struggling to find more subs

Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools, Colorado’s largest district with more than 89,000 students, has tried to keep classrooms afloat this year with a sub pool that’s dwindled to about 400 people — a third of the number it needs, said Lacey Nelson, director of talent acquisition for the district.

“We need more people in our pool just to increase our chances that we’re going to get enough to cover jobs that day,” Nelson said.

Teacher requests for time off range from an average of 200 requests a day to 500 requests a day while district subs work an average of six days a month.

The task of finding subs to fill in for last-minute requests has become exceedingly harder as people tend to want to look ahead and pick their own schedule, Nelson said.

“I think the days of a teacher calling in at 6 in the morning and a sub being there two hours later have passed,” she said.

During the pandemic, the district lost subs as it switched to remote learning and didn’t have as much of a need for subs. Now, it’s struggling to build back up its cadre of subs as it competes against other school districts, hotels, restaurants and corporations for employees, Nelson said.

DPS recruits subs through external job boards, schools’ social media accounts and newsletters, $125 referral bonuses for any staff who draw in subs, and word of mouth among its thousands of families. The district also poses the idea of subbing to teacher candidates waiting to land a job, Nelson said.

Like other districts, DPS has bandaged the problem of shortages, combining classes and having school leaders parachute into classrooms to serve as teachers and paraprofessionals.

Sometimes, the consequences of the sub shortage are more severe. Some DPS schools have had to temporarily close this school year without enough adults to send to classrooms. A few metro districts closed the Friday before Thanksgiving because of staff shortages, Chalkbeat Colorado reported.

“Ultimately, if we don’t have enough staff to safely operate our schools and open our school doors, we have to make the really difficult decision to do a school closure,” Nelson said, adding that it’s not common.

She worries about how DPS will cover classes during the height of flu season as she anticipates more teacher absences. She doesn’t even want to think about second semester.

“We try to not get too far ahead of ourselves because so much can change,” Nelson said.

As local districts work to recruit their own subs, the state has joined them in spreading the word about the need to help cover classes. The state department of education developed a communication resource to help districts create recruitment campaigns and partnered with the Colorado Center for Rural Education at the University of Northern Colorado to launch a substitute stipend program in January in which new educators can apply for a $300 stipend to help cover the cost of becoming a sub, O’Neil said.

To overcome the statewide teacher shortage, she is adamant that compensation for subs should be commensurate with jobs in other industries, ongoing professional development should be available to subs and the profession should be elevated.

An amplified level of respect is critical in drawing more subs into schools, said Josselyn, the retired teacher-turned-sub in Alamosa School District.

“I think it’s very important for subs to feel when they walk into whichever building they walk into to feel welcomed and appreciated by the staff,” she said. “I think that’s very important. I also feel that they need to believe that the school has their back.”

This story is a collaboration of The Colorado Sun and Colorado Community Media. Colorado Sun staff writer Tamara Chuang contributed to this report.