Danny Scott, whose kids attend a Chicago public school on the Northwest Side, was surprised when he was notified last minute on a recent Sunday that his second grader wouldn’t have class the next day. Not only was the teacher going to be absent, the school had no substitute to replace her.
“They weren’t able to secure a sub and they cited a substitute crisis — that there just aren’t subs to be had,” said Scott, whose kids returned in person to Cleveland Elementary in March. The following Monday, he and his wife had to figure out a quick plan to help their 8-year-old daughter finish school work on her own.
It’s a problem families and schools across the city have been dealing with all spring.
One out of every four substitute requests made by schools went unfilled, according to CPS data from mid-April to mid-May. And in some schools, it was much worse. WBEZ’s analysis found three schools where not a single sub request was filled. There were 70 schools where 50% or more of the sub requests went unfilled.
The schools with the highest percentages of unfilled requests are on the South and West sides. Bogan High School, for example, had 116 unfilled requests out of 141. Other schools with substitute problems include Richards Career Academy and Farragut High School.
The district has struggled to recruit qualified substitute teachers for years. During the pandemic, the need became even greater. Thousands of regular teachers requested to work from home mostly due to medical issues. Some teachers also had to care for family members and struggled to find day care.
But some substitute teachers say they have the same concerns, which is why many are turning down in-person sub jobs. When school buildings re-opened in earnest this spring, they also feared catching COVID-19. Some had to worry about child care too.
“There are substitutes who have disability accommodations or pending disability accommodations and we were told, ‘Sure, you could work from home,’ then we are being told, ‘No, you can’t, you have to come in.’” said one of several substitute teachers interviewed by WBEZ who feared losing their job if they were identified.
To get ready for reopening, CPS officials said they did their best to staff up under difficult circumstances. CPS officials went out to recruit 2,000 new workers. Half are full-time substitute teachers, known as cadre subs. The other half are part-time, non-union workers.
CPS says there are now 900 subs stationed in schools every day, up from 225 last year, in addition to day-to-day subs who are also available. Officials say most schools have managed to staff classrooms when regular teachers are absent. They also argue that some unfilled sub requests were actually filled by cadre substitutes. However, a WBEZ review of the data does not bear that out.
But teachers and parents tell a different story, of cancelled classes and jury-rigged instruction where teachers or other staff do double duty taking over for absent teachers when no sub is available.
They say the chaos this has caused in schools has added yet another layer of problems in a year marked by one challenge after another. That’s particularly true in the schools where the sub problem is most acute. Many of them are already struggling with low student engagement, poor attendance and a rise in the number of students getting Ds and Fs during this pandemic year.
A burden on teachers and principals
Adding staff to cover for absent teachers was part of the reopening negotiations between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. Despite those efforts, there still aren’t enough substitutes to keep classrooms running, several principals and teachers told WBEZ.
“This is really a new experience for us at Jones, where we are having consistent issues of filling in, getting subs to fill in for us,” said Anthony Cappetta, a math teacher at Jones College Prep. Jones had 36 unfilled substitute requests during the one month period in April and May. That’s 15% of all requests.
When subs don’t show up, schools have to improvise, Cappetta said.
“If there is not a sub, during the times when teachers grade or lesson plan, they are essentially covering a class and teaching an extra class. I know it’s putting an extra burden on the teachers showing up,” Cappetta said.
It’s also a major burden for principals. Several interviewed by WBEZ said they spent hours each day this spring trying to solve staffing problems. Sometimes, subs don’t show up when they realize they have to cover for a teacher in-person, the principals said. When that happens either the principal, the assistant principals or dean of students have to take over classes and supervise children.
“In my school, my clerk had to cover classes, we had to put several other bodies just to cover the students who are showing up in person,” said an elementary school principal who also asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation from CPS officials.
A long-term problem
The sub shortage could continue to haunt CPS as it starts up again in the fall in person full time. Substitute teachers say the root causes go far beyond the pandemic.
Problems that keep subs away include a lack of training, lack of direction, feeling undervalued and low wages, they said. Some sub positions are compensated differently and don’t get health benefits. Only cadre subs that work every day at the same school, as opposed to day-to-day subs, receive benefits and higher pay, CPS said. This is the type of sub position CPS says it has quadruple d this year.
There were some gains for substitute teachers in the latest contract agreement between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union, including better pay if subs are assigned to high need schools, a lunch break, and subs are now provided a new improvement process before they are dismissed.
Still, some subs say despite the gains, the issues persist, including the lack of training.
“I kind of appreciate being able to do my own thing, but there really is very little lead up, so I think some classroom management tactics or ways to relate to the students or ice breakers could be an improvement,” said Giuliana Molinaro, who subs full time at a school on the Southeast Side.
School principals agree more training is needed, especially among the newly hired subs. “Many times they have little to no experience with education at all,” the elementary school principal said.
The job, subs say, can be very stressful when regular teachers don’t leave lesson plans and don’t provide clear instructions. During remote instructions, parents have noticed when subs struggle to find the teaching materials and the class roster.
“The quality of the substitute wasn’t the same [as with the regular teacher] and the interactions with the kids weren’t the same,” Adelina Canez said, remembering a time when she had to step in and guide the sub. Her daughter is a first grader learning remotely at Hayt Elementary on the North Side.
Day-to-day subs in particular are seen as fill-ins, said one sub who did not want to be identified, also for fear of retaliation. She said they often do more than fill in for the teacher. They are sent to the lunchroom, the sick room or the front office. Sometimes without taking a break, she said.
“It’s very demoralizing,” the substitute said. “I have been in a room when a teacher walks in, she says to the other teacher, ‘Who is that?’ Just the sub.’” Substitutes, she said, are not going to go to schools where they don’t feel welcome and where they are given random assignments, “especially when you are putting yourself at risk for COVID,” she said.
Unlike other subs, Molinaro said, she enjoys working at the school where she goes every day. Consistency and finding a welcoming school community has helped. She’s been subbing at the same school every day since January. A few years back, when she was a day-to-day sub, having to go to different schools was tough, she said.
“When I was a day-to-day sub, if a school that I was most familiar with put a post up it was really easy for me to accept, but if it’s like a new school and you are going to a new neighborhood and you don’t know anybody there, that is kind of intimidating,” Molinaro said.