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Amid Omicron Surge, Central Ohio's Substitute Teachers Remain In Short Supply

An empty elementary school classroom in Westerville.
Karen Kasler
Ohio Public Radio

When regular teachers call off, districts turn to substitute teachers, but a years-long shortage of subs has worsened during the pandemic.

Cole Hansbrough's three children all attend Olentangy Local Schools. The daughter of two teachers herself, she began subbing for the district in October.

“Basically, there was a need, and I had time, and I knew I could do it," Hansbrough said. "So I just felt the need at a school that I care about. It's kind of like, in a way, it's like volunteering, but actually getting paid for it.”

Central Ohio schools have had mixed success finding people like Hansbrough.

Olentangy is one of 24 public schools in central Ohio that uses the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, or ESC, to hire substitute teachers.

According to ESC data, Olentangy Local Schools had an average 79% success rate at filling their need for subs during the fall semester.

The lowest rate belonged to Whitehall City Schools at just 40%.

The average for the school districts ESC serves is closer to 65%, said Robin Halley, human resources coordinator for the agency.

“So what you will find is teachers covering more than one classroom, maybe some classes have to actually be canceled, maybe kids end up being in a study hall. So it just means that every, every school district has to be resourceful," Halley said.

Columbus City Schools, which manages its own substitute teachers, currently has 616 active subs. While that’s up from last year, it’s about 125 short of what the district needs.

“I feel like due to the pandemic, it's definitely been a challenge for us and all school districts in the country because of this," said Terri Trigg, director of talent acquisition for Columbus City Schools.

"So as teachers call out, we also have substitute teachers that call out as well, and they may be exposed to COVID may have COVID and different things like that. So we are experiencing the same challenges as every other school district," Trigg said.

In 2020, Columbus increased its pay rates for substitute teachers from $95 to $126 dollars per day. After 60 days of work, the pay raises to over $230 dollars per day with benefits.

Matthew Jenkins is a long-term building substitute for Hilltonia Middle School, and admits the pay was a major selling point when he took the job in April.

“I mean, it works out to even just starting out, it's like roughly like 18 bucks an hour or something like that. So it's like, there's not a lot of gigs out there that are offering quite that much money starting off with no experience. So I kind of jumped at the opportunity," Jenkins said.

Other districts have increased pay as well during the pandemic, but it may not be the most motivating factor, said ESC's Robin Halley.

“I think a lot of schools have really tried to not take substitutes for granted and make them feel more welcome. Make it more inviting to them. And I think sometimes that goes further than even the increased pay does," Halley said.

Substitute teachers agree the profession has a lot to offer.

"If you are a person who has to know what you're doing, it's definitely not for you. So I think a lot of people would rather have more control over their environment. That's probably why they don't sub. But I think it's kind of fun," Hansbrough said.

"Really, the only requirement is just a bachelor's degree and passing a background check. So it's definitely a good opportunity, but I think we're just feeling the effects of the pandemic in general, the stuff that everybody's kind of getting hit with right now. It's just been really rough," Jenkins said.

And if health experts are correct, it’s going to be rough for school districts for several more weeks.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.