PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As the shortage of substitute teachers continues to be a problem in Rhode Island amid the pandemic, Gov. Gina Raimondo has signed an order allowing retired teachers to continue collecting their pensions even while being paid to work as teachers during the pandemic.
The order — signed on Dec. 30 — waives the existing requirement that a retired teacher’s state pension be paused if they work for more than 90 days in a given school year. The provision exists to prevent so-called “double dipping,” where a teacher could retire and draw their state pension but also take up another teaching post with a taxpayer-funded salary.
But amid the COVID-19 crisis, Raimondo in October called on retired teachers to sign up to be substitutes, as teacher absences soared because of state-mandated quarantine, teachers contracting the virus and teachers calling out sick with the slightest symptoms, as recommended by health officials.
The order signed in December allows those retirees to work for longer than 90 days and retain their pensions for the remainder of this school year only. The order requires that the school district send a letter in writing to the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island certifying that the retiree is needed because of the pandemic and is not being employed past June 25, 2021.
In an interview Tuesday with 12 News, R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said the pension pause was a “barrier” to getting retirees to serve as subs or fill teacher vacancies during the crisis.
“If you’re a retired teacher, please come join us,” Infante-Green said. “We need you now and there will not be any penalty.”
The order was signed relatively quietly, and there was no televised coronavirus briefing that week because of the holidays. But R.I. Department of Education spokesperson Emily Crowell said superintendents were notified of the change so they could tell the retirees currently serving as subs.
RIDE also launched a substitute recruitment campaign in the fall, quickly garnering roughly 1,500 applications.
Crowell said 1,200 of those were deemed qualified and 140 have been deployed to 24 school districts after completing an online training program through the Highlander Institute. The state is paying Highlander $221,300 to run the substitute recruitment and training, according to the contract.
Another 210 potential subs are in a cohort currently being trained by Highlander, Crowell said. The Education Department has also allocated $2 million worth of coronavirus relief funds for districts to help hire and pay substitutes.
The substitute shortage predates the pandemic. Districts consistently struggled to fill teacher absences with subs, frequently using other teachers to cover classrooms during their free periods.
But the problem worsened when COVID-19 hit and schools reopened in the fall, causing some districts to revert to remote learning not because of a big outbreak of the virus, but because there weren’t enough subs to cover teacher absences and quarantines.
It was not immediately clear how many retirees have taken advantage of Raimondo’s temporary change to the pension rules in order to help fill the absences.