School districts feel pinch of substitute shortage

Area school districts are facing a severe shortage of substitutes in all disciplines from teacher to groundskeeper and cafeteria worker.

The dilemma, one complicated by a declining interest among college students to become teachers, has become a daily challenge to fully staff a public school building.

While the lack of sufficient substitutes, particularly for teaching slots, is a problem across Pennsylvania, rural school districts are dramatically feeling the pinch.

“There has been an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers for years but, for some reason, it is continuing to intensify,” said Christine Merryman, human resources and personnel manager for Riverview Intermediate Unit 6 in Clarion.

The IU 6, a 17-school district consortium based in Clarion, provides a variety of services to public school districts in Clarion, Forest, Jefferson and Venango counties. In that agenda is a listing of teachers who are available for substitute teaching positions.

School districts also tap private employment agencies to swell their teaching and other staff lists. In all cases, the lists are very short.

The shortage of teachers as well as subs who can temporarily step into those faculty jobs is a problem across Pennsylvania. Last summer, the Pennsylvania Department of Education reported the state needs public school teachers in all subjects. In the past several years, Pennsylvania typically issued teacher certifications to about 14,000 new teachers a year. In 2018, that number fell to less than 5,000.

Training is scheduled

The IU 6 is sponsoring a training session for individuals interested in working as guest, or substitute, teachers. It will be held April 11 at the IU building, 270 Mayfield Road, Clarion.

The cost is $25 and applications, available by contacting the IU office at 226-7103 (extension 5116), are due by Friday.

To be considered, an applicant must have proof of a bachelor’s degree and current Act 34, Act 114 and Act 151 clearances.

Known as the Guest Teacher program, it is an IU service provided to school districts in the four-county area. The purpose of the program, according to the IU, is “to provide quality substitute teacher training to individuals with limited or no teaching experience.”

“The need is so great now that we are trying to revamp our program, putting some on-line and others in a one-day training,” said Merryman. “You have to jump through a few hoops and it cost a little money but we will help people through the process.”

Merryman said she has seen the teacher shortage, including full-time staff members as well as substitute teachers, ramp up in the last few years.

“It’s been an ongoing shortage of substitute teachers for years but, for some reason, it is intensifying on all levels. This program allows people with a bachelor’s degree, perhaps with no certification or formal teaching experience, to get certified to help fill the substitute teacher gap,” she said.

Connecting people to jobs

Susan Williams, executive director of the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce, is promoting the guest teacher program as a result of a personal experience related to the lack of substitute teachers.

“It came to light for me when I was asked to assist the IU in identifying businesses that would be willing to participate in a teacher-in-the-workplace program. In those conversations, I learned that there were more spaces open than available teachers because the teachers couldn’t get out of the classroom. There was no one to substitute teach,” said Williams.

Williams said contacts in local school districts proved that point when she was told “you can’t have a teacher (for the program) because of a shortage” that would leave a classroom without a faculty member there.

“Our priority at the chamber is the workforce and working with any employer to better identify prospective employees. We are connectors that way – education needs employees and there are people out there who are qualified. Our job is to have those two meet, whether it’s a staff position or a substitute,” said Williams.

There is another goal, too.

“By many accounts there is a shortage of teachers and subs so I would love to put that call out there and say, ‘hey, it’s time to call your kids home.’ What an opportunity to come back to Venango County,” she said.

‘We need more people’

Area school districts are feeling the pinch in both hiring teachers as well as plugging in substitute teachers to fill vacancies when staff members are attending training, overseeing special programs, meeting with students, in planning periods, out sick and more.

“We are noticing the shortage more and more. In the last five years, it has gotten increasingly worse and this year is the worst so far in recent memory,” said Bill Vonada, superintendent at Cranberry Area School District. “This school year, we are running at an 82 percent fill rate, meaning that eight of every 10 absences have been covered by a substitute. On any given day, we are short across the board, high school and elementary. We only have 33 teachers on our sub list.”

The Cranberry district sets a pay of $100 a day for a substitute teacher. That’s a standard amount, said Vonada.

“All the districts have increased their sub rate but we’ve really seen no benefit from that,” he said. “Substitutes are worth every penny of that $100.”

At Cranberry, the district relies on the IU for assistance in signing up substitute teachers. In addition, the district seeks out college students who are in their last semester of school and who meet state standards and clearance requirements.

More than teachers are needed, though.

The Cranberry Area School District website lists vacancies for substitutes in custodial, groundskeeper, clerical, child specific aides, food service workers and school nurse. The listing is similar to vacancy announcements in most school districts.

“The solution is that we need more people in all positions within the district,” said Vonada. “People are just not going into education and that is sad. All school districts are facing these same kinds of shortages. It needs fixed and that will require more people.”