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Substitute teacher shortage prompts central Illinois school districts to consider hiring permanent staffers to fill gaps

Substitute teaching, but make it full time.

That's the idea that at least two central Illinois school districts are testing as a solution to an ongoing shortage of teachers and the substitutes who cover their absences.

Heyworth Community School District is one of the latest in McLean County to consider hiring full-time staff members dedicated to covering teacher absences on a daily basis.

"This really started with conversations administratively and with support staff this year, (which) have been about our staff seeming more stressed than usual," said superintendent Lisa Taylor. "The tension in September felt like right before Thanksgiving break — you could feel that we are moving at a pace that's too fast to manage all year long, and somewhere people are going to run out of that energy."

Taylor said a district mental health survey revealed teachers are most stressed about the lack of time they have, a problem exacerbated by a dearth of substitutes who can fill in staffing gaps.

On average, about eight staff members are absent per day, Taylor said. Out of a staff of "120-130," that might not seem like a significant number, but the absences are consequential nonetheless.

"At least two or three days a week, there are positions that are unfilled. Let's say three teaching positions are unfilled and those are seven sections a day — there's 21 classrooms, right, that need to be covered by 20-some teachers in that building. And that's (done in) your free time or your planning time or your lunchtime. Your day is just becoming longer and more exhausting," Taylor said.

Administrators have proposed a solution of sorts: Hiring two, full-time teachers whose primary job will be to teach where the absences are. The positions would be salaried so that the district's pool of substitutes remains at the same level; Taylor said offering a salary instead of an hourly rate also is a recruitment strategy.

It would, hopefully, "at least lift some of the burden," she said. "There's just so many things that we're trying to do like everyone, but we're kind of scrambling. Anything you can do, even if it's incremental and small, it helps with your staff."

Mark Jontry, superintendent of the Regional Office of Education that covers McLean and DeWitt counties, said he's "not surprised" by the district's proposal.

"Hiring a couple of individuals full time to be available every day to fill in is really, I think, forward-thinking and it's kind of where we're at in light of the labor shortages in K-12 education," he told WGLT.

In Bloomington-Normal, Unit 5 schools kicked off a similar strategy earlier this week when four hourly substitutes were brought on as full-timers who will be deployed to buildings with the highest need on a given day.

The pilot program differs from Heyworth's proposal in that Unit 5's substitutes are not technically considered full-time employees, meaning they'll be paid an hourly rate instead of placed on a salary schedule like full-time teachers.

Unit 5's hires also are based only in elementary schools; Taylor said the two potential hires in her district could go to either the elementary or high school buildings.

School board members in Heyworth have yet to approve the proposal; the topic was scheduled for discussion at a Nov. 10 personnel committee meeting before moving to the full board for a vote.

Either way, the goal for both districts is the same: address a problem that Jontry said is "only getting worse."

"The pool has gotten smaller post-pandemic," he said. "You have individuals that don't want to have to work in workplaces where there's a mask mandate. And, honestly, you have people that have probably found other employment opportunities, post-pandemic, that pay more than what substitute teaching does.

"It's all kind of coming together. Really, we're going to get to a crisis point where we're going to have to reevaluate, in some instances, what licensure looks like in order to be able to teach in front of classrooms in the state of Illinois."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.