CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Despite offering substitute teachers more money to fill vacant classrooms, school districts across the state continue to grapple with shortages.
The evidence of bigger paychecks is evident on some job websites, including in Woonsocket, which was advertising up to $249 a day. The daily rate stood in stark contrast to early 2020, when the district told Target 12 they were offering just $100 a day.
Target 12 surveyed every district in the state and among those that responded, all but Burrillville officials said they have raised pay for substitute teachers.
Despite the pay bump, however, almost every district in the survey said the substitute shortage has gotten worse. The only exceptions were Narragansett, which said it had gotten better, and Barrington, which reported the substitute shortage was the same.
“We’re competing with every other district in Rhode Island for a very small pool of available substitute teachers,” Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said. “We’re trying to remain competitive but it also becomes a huge budget issue.”
Accounting for the jump in pay for substitutes has been a balancing act for districts. Nota-Masse said while Cranston uses its regular budget to fuel the pay bump, other districts are opting to find other means.
A Brown University report this year found most of the COVID-19 spending dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act are going toward existing teachers to fill in the education gap. The researchers said 20% of that money was being used for substitute teachers and contractors.
The federal pandemic relief money, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, is slated to expire in 2024, which is why Nota-Masse said she doesn’t want to allocate that buck of money towards substitute salaries. And she underscored the issue of vacant classrooms is an ongoing challenge that’s likely to be around for years to come.
“We need the substitutes,” Nota-Masse told Target 12. “Every day we have teachers who are absent and that’s part of employment, but we have to make it a priority to make sure those classes are covered.”
Some substitute positions are harder to fill than others, which Cranston Public Schools has tried to accommodate by offering a tiered pay system for substitutes.
Cranston Substitute Pay Rates:
- Days 1-30: $100 per day (2020 $80)
- Days 31-60: $150 per day (2020 $90)
- Days 61-135: $175 per day (2020 $100)
Nota-Masse said the toughest roles to fill are long-term substitutes, which the state defines as educators who are in the classroom for at least 45 days, as they have to go through the same certification process as full-time teachers.
“Finding certified teachers in general is difficult, then having them fill in as a substitute the pool is non-existent,” Nota-Masse said.
Rhode Island is hardly alone when it comes to having a substitute shortage, according to data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The federal agency reports nearly 600,000 substitutes are attempting to fill 30 million teacher absences across the country.
Rhode Island has taken multiple steps to try and address the shortage, including removing the certification requirement for short-term substitutes. And this year, Rhode Island lawmakers passed legislation extending the time retired teachers can substitute without jeopardizing their post-employment benefits.
“We’ve also looked at retirees to come back and sub and we’ve had some luck with that, but after teaching for 40 years coming back and doing that may not be the most desirable option for folks,” Nota-Masse said.
But R.I. Department of Education officials said it has other ideas to try and address the shortage, including making the agency a “one-stop shop” for all education-related job openings.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said the initiative is expected to come out in September.
“We can put all our vacancies for the state there so that people don’t have to go to one district or another, but they can see where potentials match,” she said.
Nota-Masse said there are also systemic problems tied to the substitute shortage, which begins with why people are not entering the education field more broadly, especially out of state schools including the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and New England Tech.
“Years ago there were many teacher preparation programs URI, RIC, New England Tech for CTE programs,” she said. “Some of those programs do not exist anymore. So it’s harder to become a teacher in the state.”
Another way Cranston is trying to draw in talent is by turning to its current student population, offering students career and technical training to get them on the path to certification.
Madison Perez is a substitute teacher at Community Preparatory School, a private school in Providence. She started the job during the pandemic while she was still at Rhode Island College.
Now freshly out of school, and working three other jobs, she’s saving up to move out of her parents’ home. But she plans to stop substitute teaching when she gets a full-time job.
“I’ve done a lot of theater work and live events and I got my degree in communications, so I think I’d like to go into live events,” Perez said.
She said one of the biggest misconceptions about substitute teachers is that they are in it for the money.
“I didn’t go to school for teaching but I still care about the kids,” she said. “Going in and sitting down and saying to kids, ‘Hey, we’re going to get this thing done today. Let’s do it.’ And just like joking around and being around the classroom, it’s nice.”