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How Kentucky School Districts are Managing the Substitute Teacher Shortage

Kentucky struggles to address the substitute teacher shortage amid an absence of data and variation across school districts.

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Passionate about ensuring education justice in Kentucky and the nation through storytelling. Initiating conversations about student voice, climate science and art. Avid poet with lots of playlists and an affinity for dad movies.

(Image Source: Associated Press)

This semester has been full of changes and challenges as students returned to in-person classes. Full classrooms, however, were met with a rampant substitute teacher shortage. 

A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in 2021 revealed 77% of respondents have struggled to hire substitute teachers. Additionally, 66% of respondents have been asking staff to take on extra responsibilities; this means teachers are covering extra classes and losing valuable planning time. 

The national shortage applies to Southern Kentucky schools. In previous years, a retired Warren County Public Schools teacher turned substitute has worked three to four days a week. This year is different. “I have worked all but two days this entire semester,” he said.

Because of his age and safety concerns, he did not sub last year. When he decided to return, he did not expect to work as much as he did. Many school districts lost well-educated, experienced retired teachers due to safety concerns, and only a fraction returned to classrooms for the 2021-2022 year. 

According to an article by Spectrum News, the variation between school districts makes it difficult to track the number of substitutes available and willing to work. 

Keylie Fears, a finance officer from Todd County Public Schools, believes that a majority of workers simply aren’t willing to become subs. “I think people aren’t willing to work hard, people want everything for free... [but] we have some subs that are wonderful, and they work hard to make ends meet.”

Fears recalls a bus driver who works during the day as a substitute, drives an afternoon route, and then works as a sports coach at night. 

Much like teachers have had to cover class periods and jump around schools, substitutes have learned to be highly adaptable. 

Ann Simpson, a full-time substitute teacher at Greenwood High School, says her job was created as a result of the pandemic and subsequent sub shortage. She previously worked as an RTI officer, though she found herself subbing at odd times as retired teachers stayed home during the pandemic. 

Now, she works every day, bouncing around between classes, going where she is needed. 

Creating jobs like Ms. Simpson’s is one way schools are working to fix sub issues without exploiting their faculty. Other districts nationwide have mobilized quickly to create solutions, including lowering substitute teacher requirements and implementing aggressive recruiting tactics.

Kentucky Department of Education Chief Communications Officer Toni Konz Tatman told Spectrum some Kentucky districts are offering incentives, such as additional pay, to bring more subs to schools. 

“It's a mitch-matched puzzle. It's really all-hands-on-deck, and all team effort,” says Ms. Simpson, reflecting the views of school systems at large working to keep students in classrooms for this school year.