PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Susan Rohwer says she was surprised when her daughter Lourdes came home from kindergarten at Martin Luther King Jr. elementary in Providence last year to report she had spent the day out of her normal classroom.
“She would come home and she would say, ‘I was so bored today, I had to fill out sheets, I was with the 5th graders,’” Rohwer said. “Or, ‘we had to watch a movie in another classroom.’”
Providence is one of at least a dozen school districts in Rhode Island that use what are called “splits,” according to a Target 12 survey of districts. When there’s no substitute available to fill a teacher’s absence, they sometimes split the students up into other classrooms – and not always with the same grade level.
“It’s disruptive to the kids’ environment and learning,” Rohwer said in an interview. “It’s disruptive and probably hard for the teachers, who have to deal with shuffling kids.”
A Target 12 investigation found the splits are a symptom of a widespread substitute shortage, which leaves school administrators scrambling to fill absences, kids missing out on instruction, teachers frustrated and taxpayers on the hook for extra costs.
Each weekday morning in Rhode Island schools across the state, principals and superintendents employ a patchwork of solutions when they don’t have enough available substitutes in the pool to cover the number of teachers who are out that day as a result of illness, jury duty, personal days or other reasons.
“The first thing I do in the morning is have my cup of coffee and read the daily report,” said Smithfield Superintendent Judy Paolucci, pointing to the Frontline absence management program open on her computer.
She said even though Smithfield is not one of the districts with the highest levels of chronic teacher absenteeism, there are still simply not enough substitutes to cover all the daily absences.
“There’s a shortage everywhere in the state, and outside the state as well,” Paolucci said. “Right now there’s a low unemployment rate and frankly, schools don’t pay subs very well.”
In Smithfield, substitutes make $85 per day, which comes out to $12.59 per hour in a regular school day. It’s two dollars above the minimum wage in Rhode Island, but less than the $12.75 minimum wage right over the border in Massachusetts. (Paolucci pushed for the rate to be increased from $75 a day in 2017.)
On average, Smithfield manages to fill 81% of classroom absences with a sub, leaving the schools to figured out how to cover the other 19%. And that’s a higher fill rate than some other districts in the state struggling with a shortage. The Woonsocket School District reports only about 45% of its absences on average are being filled with subs. In Providence – which still has upwards of 70 vacant teacher positions to contend with – about 50% of the daily absences are filled by subs.
The most common option to fill the rest of the absences involves having regular teachers miss their daily planning period (when they don’t have a regular class) to cover another teacher’s class. But it comes at a cost to taxpayers; in Smithfield, a teacher who misses their planning period to cover a class earns an extra $30 an hour, per the union contract. That’s more than double the $12.59 a substitute would have been paid for the same hour of work.
“It’s actually less expensive to have a regular substitute for the day than it is to have regular teachers covering for that period,” Paolucci said.
In Cranston, the teachers are paid a comparatively eye-popping $70 per class period to cover for an absent teacher at the middle school level, and $140 for a full block at the high school level.
Cranston, like Providence, utilizes splits as a stop-gap solution (most districts also pay teachers extra money per student they take in.) Cranston was also one of only a few districts that provided data to Target 12 on how often the practice is used; students were split up 934 times last school year as a result of the sub shortage.
“We are definitely having a difficult time finding subs,” said Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse said in an interview. “The other day we had 35 people absent and we had six subs.”
The district has 109 substitutes in its pool, but that doesn’t mean every sub is available every day to fill in.
East Providence, a school district about half the size of Cranston, reports having about 200 to 225 splits per year.
But the state’s largest school district, Providence, did not provide data on how often students are split into different classrooms. Spokesperson Laura Hart said the information is not tracked.
Rohwer has no idea, either, how often her daughter was stuck in another classroom last year without classmates her age because of a lack of substitute.
“We would never get any kind of report from the school about it,” Rohwer said.
“I would be appalled if my kindergartener came home and said they sat in a 5th grade classroom,” said R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who took state control of the Providence Public Schools last year. “What is that? It’s inappropriate in terms of instruction. That’s a wasted day. Aside from the fact that you shouldn’t have five-year-olds with ten-year-olds.”
Infante-Green said ideally, splitting students is a practice that should not continue.
“The problem is that we don’t have a choice,” she said. “If there isn’t an adult, there isn’t a substitute teacher, then there is no choice.”
The splits were even mentioned in the Johns Hopkins University report that was the impetus for her to take over the school district last year.
“Inadequate substitute teachers meant that students were split up all over the school,” the report’s authors wrote about an unidentified Providence school. “Because a teacher was on jury duty, one 5th-grader came into a kindergarten classroom to work all day independently.”
Told that Providence declined to provide data on how often students were being divided into other classrooms in this way, Infante-Green said the district should put together the numbers using payroll records.
“There is a way to track it,” Infante-Green said. “Whether they have made an effort to put it all together is another story.”
And she reacted strongly to Cranston’s numbers.
“That’s a problem,” she said. “There are are only so many days in school year, amd if you have 900 splits, that means there’s any number of kids that are not in front of their classroom teacher that have an interrupted education, there’s a lack of continuity,” Infante-Green said. “It’s tragic. We need to figure this out.”
Solving the sub shortage
In an effort to get more substitute teachers into the pools, the Rhode Island Department of Education dropped the bachelor’s degree requirement from its certification rules a little more than a year ago. Now, anyone with an associate’s degree or equivalent two years of college can be considered, opening up the work to current college students.
Other solutions are also being tried on the local level, including hiring building-based substitutes to try and create a more predictable schedule of availability.
Central Falls does this with its Warrior Fellows program, which gives 21 aspiring teachers — typically recent college graduates — a chance to work in schools. The fellows are paid more than regular substitutes — $130 per day, compared to $100 for other subs.
“Our Warrior Fellows program has been a great asset to our district — supporting students directly, providing pipeline opportunities for educators wanting to join the district and certainly enabling for more purposeful, informed instruction when teachers are out,” said Central Falls Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo.
Other districts have outsourced their substitute hiring altogether, using vendors such as Precision Human Resources or ESS to recruit and employ the subs, who typically work for multiple districts.
This option could result in more success in filling absences — South Kingstown, for example, uses Precision and fills on average 89% of absences — but it also costs more for the district to hire the outside vendor. South Kingstown pays a 33% markup to Precision over its regular substitute rates, while saving some resources in its own human resources department.
Nota-Masse said Cranston is currently looking into this solution, even though the district previously found absence-management programs to be cost prohibitive.
“The companies assure us a higher fill rate,” Nota-Masse said. “They talk about possibly an 80% fill rate. If we could get that, we’d be happy.” (Cranston’s current fill rate is 55%.)
In Narragansett, which boasts a fill rate of 90%, spokesperson Lauren Ruggiero said a contingent of retired teachers have stuck around as substitutes, making it easier to fill absences.
Infante-Green says the problem is inextricably tied with both teacher absenteeism and a teacher shortage, which need to be addressed in tandem with finding more substitutes.
“We have systemic problem that we need to fix,” Infante-Green said. “I want to get away from the idea that we need more subs. It’s that we need so many subs. We need to get to the root cause of what’s happening here.”
She said RIDE is currently working on a teacher recruitment campaign, which could offer housing incentives to teachers who come to Rhode Island. And the department is piloting a tool developed by Harvard to track teacher absenteeism data.
Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, says the substitute shortage creates an “added strain” on teachers who have to cover classes or take in more students.
“It leads to exhaustion, illness, stress,” Calabro said. “It’s disruptive to teachers who are trying to plan or do their own correcting or grading.”
She added that some teachers go weeks without getting their daily “unassigned” period, because they’re covering for unfilled absences. And even though they’re paid extra for the extra work, not every teacher considers it worth the money.
“I’ve had teachers that have been covering for well over a month now,” Calabro said. “It’s a heavy lift.”
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Providence — and many districts — do pay more for long-term subs who stay beyond 30 days, and some districts offer higher rates for certified or retired teachers. But the base daily rate for the majority of subs remains relatively low. East Greenwich pays its subs just $75 a day, while Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket– among others — pay $100 per day.
Raising the pay rate for substitute teachers may seem like an obvious answer to increase the pool, but the budget line item is competing with dozens of other items where school districts want to increase spending.
In Smithfield, Superintendent Paolucci says the district may actually have to reduce some staff this year after state funding to the district decreased by more than a million dollars last year,
“The taxpayers are already making up the difference the state is not paying,” Paolucci said. “To then add a substantial amount more to the substitute budget line would be really a challenge.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Barrington’s substitute rate is $90, not $100 as the superintendent originally said.
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.