As Coronavirus Cases Surge, Nebraska's Substitute Teacher Shortage Puts Pressure on Schools

Dec. 8, 2020, 10:43 a.m. ·

Person Writing While Using Phone by Pew Nguyen

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The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on Nebraska’s public schools. Nowhere is that more seen than the rate in the rates by which districts can cover teacher absences. A recent report from the Omaha-World Herald noted some of the state’s districts are seeing class fill rates drop as much as 35% in November.

Eric Webber is Lincoln Public School’s the Associate Superintendent for Human Resources. He says pre-pandemic, LPS had a substitute fill-rate of around 89%. As of the third week of October, that rate went down to 77%.

“It really puts pressure on the building,” Webber said, “What ends up happening is that they can’t secure a sub then the building has to go into a process where they ask teachers to cover classes.”

That, in turn, forces teachers to give up valuable planning periods; about an hour each day when teachers take care of crucial administrative tasks like attending meetings or planning future classes.

In some cases, situations become so desperate, officials from the district’s public office have been called in to help.

“We’ve had directors, administrators, even us on exec, we’ve gone out and helped in buildings,” Webber said.

Webber says LPS is implementing several strategies, including providing additional pay for substitutes for teaching a certain number of days, providing online training to help substitutes learn the basics of remote teaching and the hiring of “teacher associates.”

“We’re hoping we can make some impact with these three or four things, but we also know that in the pandemic, nothing is going exactly the way we think it will.”

In response to the shortage, The University of Nebraska Kearney is employing a unique approach: letting undergraduates teach as substitutes.

Hannah Eberl is an education major at the University enrolled in a one-credit hour special-topics course that helps students get their substitute teacher permits and into classrooms in need.

“After the first time I just loved it and could not get enough of it,” Eberl said.

She says it never really occurred to her that she and students like her are putting themselves on the front lines at a unique time in history

“Honestly, not really, because I just enjoy it so much,” said Eberl.

Thanks to a partnership with several Educational Service Units, the permit provided through UNK covers 56 public and private school districts in south-central Nebraska.

Education Commission Matt Blomstedt said concerns over schools closing due to lack of staff are real and has already happened. He does not, however, think we will go back to the widespread shutdowns we saw in the spring.

“It’s certainly possible,” said Blomstedt, but he noted it was more likely to happen on a “building by building basis.”

“You might see some instances where schools need to close for a period of time.”

Mary Jean Blumenstock is a substitute teacher for Lincoln Public Schools and is an example of just how difficult it could be to get fill rates back to where they were before the pandemic, especially among substitutes who are retirees. She says she would teach if she could, but the risk is too great.

“I was talking to a substitute yesterday and she was saying the same thing, ‘Oh! I just miss the kids so much!’” said Blumenstock. “Plus, we miss not being there to help our colleagues.”

She recalled when her husband had a massive heart attack, and she needed a substitute teacher to help with one of her classes.

“Bless her heart, she came to the hospital every single day and picked up the lesson plans that I was writing,” Blumenstock said. “I want to pay that forward and I feel like I can’t right now.”