Low pay, shrinking substitute teacher pool leaves schools scrambling to cover classrooms

Nicole Shih
Telegram & Gazette
Substitute teacher Heather Warren assists a student during an eighth-grade science class at Southbridge Middle School Thursday.

Two years ago, it was already hard for local school districts to find substitute teachers, as low pay and a healthy economy dried up the pool of potential applicants in the region.

Now, as COVID-19 cases rise again, substitute shortages have hit another record high at school districts across Central Massachusetts as subs decline to risk catching the virus for little more than minimum wage.

At Worcester Public Schools, finding enough subs to cover teacher absences was an issue even before the pandemic, according to Superintendent Maureen Binienda. 

Currently, Worcester has a little more than 200 names on its subs list, but that does not mean that all 200 people are available every day, Binienda said. 

Of the 200 subs, some of them are seniors who are still in college and some have other responsibilities that may prevent them from taking a job, Binienda said. Some of them only work once a week, she added.

School administrators across Central Massachusetts are voicing similar concerns entering the new school year. 

"We're having a really difficult time hiring substitutes," said Theodore Friend, superintendent of the Sutton School District, saying that in addition to subs, they are also having a hard time finding instructional assistants, bus drivers and custodians. "It's been a very, very difficult start to the school year because there's simply no (one) applying for jobs." 

What do substitute teachers make? 

Across Central Massachusetts, subs can generally expect to be paid less than $100 to teach a full day of classes — approximately 6.5 to 7.5 hours a day in most districts — even if they have a college degree or teacher certification. 

The relatively meager pay has made the job not so attractive when Massachusetts' minimum wage was increased from $12.75 to $13.50 this year.

In school districts throughout Central Massachusetts, substitute pay can range from $80 to $165 a day.

In Worcester, subs are paid $85 a day. The pay increases after the sub works 45 consecutive days and becomes a long-term sub. Worcester does not have permanent subs — full-time employees who only fill in for other teachers.

In Westborough the daily rate is $100, Fitchburg $95, Southbridge $95, Shrewsbury $90, Wachusett  $90, Clinton $85 and Sutton $80.

But as many school systems struggle to cover basic and academic services such as hiring additional reading specialists, instructional assistants and counselors, increasing pay for subs is not a major priority in most school districts, according to most superintendents.

Smaller subs pool 

Southbridge Superintendent Jeffrey Villar said it has always been an issue to find substitute teachers, and it has worsened with the pandemic, but he's also seeing a smaller pool of full-time teacher candidates.

Recruiting and retaining subs is an "industry issue" for most area districts, according to Amber Bock, superintendent of Westborough Public Schools. 

"This isn't just related to the challenges of COVID, but just the job pool in general as Massachusetts' employment rate was high and job hunters a tighter market," Bock said. 

Wachusett Regional, one of the larger school districts in Central Mass., has about 100 subs, while Shrewsbury has around 40 subs.

Southbridge has hired seven day-to-day subs, four long-term subs and one full-time sub. Full-time subs are embedded in a school for a full school year. 

However, some smaller school districts do not have enough subs to fill on for teacher absences.

Sutton School District has fewer than 10 subs it can count on, while Clinton has less than five.

"Every year, we worry about it. It's a problem that hasn’t been resolved," Villar said. "If we go back a couple of decades ago and there was a high demand for teachers and few jobs, then we found that a lot easier to have substitutes." 

Teacher union advocates for subs

For some subs, the decision not to seek work is a financial one. Many other part-time jobs pay more money and there are plenty of them available. Villar said increasing sub pay would be a step in the right direction.

The Educational Association of Worcester, the city's teachers union, doesn't represent subs, but it does advocate for better pay and working conditions for subs, according to the organization’s president, Roger Nugent. 

"I believe that the pool is still very, very, very small if it exists at all," Nugent said, stating that subbing can be a very intimidating job experience. "The pay is terribly low, and being a sub is not an easy job (because) you're going in for someone whose students are not used to you." 

When schools can't hire enough subs to fill in for absent teachers, they are left with few options, including reallocating existing teachers or making students squeeze into other teachers’ classrooms.

In Worcester, instructional assistants and part-time tutors often fill in when classrooms are unstaffed. Sometimes student teachers from area colleges and universities also cover.

Though not ideal, assistant principals have also covered empty classrooms in a pinch, according to Binienda.