RI pushing to recruit substitutes as teacher quarantines cause schools to go remote

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Department of Education is launching a new recruitment effort to find substitute teachers, as at least two schools have had to revert to remote learning because of an inability to fill classrooms.

Woonsocket High School and North Providence High School recently made a switch to distance learning, with school leaders citing a shortage of substitutes as part of the problem in both cases.

In North Providence, Superintendent Joseph Goho said the high school would be remote until at least Oct. 19, after two positive COVID-19 cases led to a large-scale quarantine of both students and teachers.

Goho said there are simply not enough substitute teachers to cover the classrooms in person.

“Between teachers directed to be quarantined at the HS, and teachers on leave due to COVID reasons, it’s about 20-25% of the staff,” Goho said in an email. “It’s even more for teacher assistants.”

Similar teacher absences led Woonsocket to keep its high school remote for the rest of the semester.

“The Human Resources Department has been working extremely hard to find substitutes, however we are competing with districts throughout the state who are also without enough substitutes,” Superintendent Patrick McGee wrote in a letter to parents. “The district will continue to review the number of available substitute teachers needed to cover WHS classes and decide if and when students can return with a hybrid model.”

The state’s new program aims to recruit 200 substitutes, who will be trained through the Highlander Institute to become a substitute teacher. Applicants must have two years of college experience, and the training will take about 10 hours.

The dollar figure for how much the state is paying Highlander was not immediately available. RIDE spokesperson Pete Janhunen said the contract with the vendor has not yet been finalized.

There are a variety of reasons for the substitute shortage, an issue that predates the pandemic, as reported by Target 12 in February. Administrators at the time cited the relatively low pay and the college requirements as part of the issue, in addition to the then-low unemployment rate. (The state’s college requirement has been lowered in recent years from a four-year degree to two years of college in order to get more applicants.)

Now, even with a high unemployment rate due to the pandemic, there’s the added concern about contracting coronavirus in schools; many subs are retired teachers in an age group at high risk.

Multiple school districts including Warwick and Smithfield have raised their substitute pay during the pandemic in order to compete for the small pool of subs available. The shortage also makes it difficult to assign subs to specific buildings, in order to maintain as stable of a group as possible to prevent virus spread.

A flyer for RIDE’s new substitute recruitment program.

RIDE is currently advertising pay rates of $90 to $150 per day for the subs recruited to the new program, roughly $13 to $22 per hour. The rates are set by the individual school districts.

A flyer for the program says online courses can begin as soon as Oct. 19.

Gov. Gina Raimondo made an appeal for substitutes at her weekly coronavirus briefing on Wednesday.

“I’m putting a call out to all retired teachers. We need your help,” Raimondo said. “Please consider coming back to be a substitute teacher.”

She also mentioned the new substitute training program for those who might be looking for a new job.

“We’re spending an awful lot of time trying to find substitute teachers,” she said. “We’ll provide you with the free training and we need to get you in the classroom or virtually teaching our kids.”

She said those who complete the Highlander training course will be included on a hiring list for districts, who will directly call the to hire the substitutes.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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