Eric Stinton: Hawaii Needs Substitute Teachers To Help With The Pandemic - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


It’s hard to say that school was back in full swing last week. When classes resumed following winter break, somewhere between 10% to 20% of students in each of my classes were absent, roughly mirroring the amount of teachers who were also absent.

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For students and teachers alike, many, though not all of the absences were related to the surge of the omicron variant. Some had either contracted or been exposed to Covid-19 and thus had to quarantine. Others who traveled for the holidays were left stranded when their flights were canceled due to airline staffing shortages – shortages caused by Covid.

The abundance of absences renewed the debate about how schools should operate. Should we march on with in-person learning, move to distance learning again or return to the blended model where students alternate between coming to school and staying home?

Each has advantages and disadvantages. Full distance learning is the easiest and safest option, but it is the least educationally effective. The obstacles to learning remotely are compounded for the most vulnerable students, who often lack reliable internet connections and come from homes that are unstable or unsafe for non-Covid reasons. It’s also less tenable now than it was before since most parents are no longer working from home.

In-person learning is the most effective way to teach and learn, and it’s the best in terms of students’ social and emotional well-being. But it also poses the most risk for coronavirus spread, and it’s complicated by the inevitability of teachers being out for Covid-related issues.

Blended learning is a nice middle ground – students get some of the benefits of in-person learning and some of the benefits of distance learning. But it’s the most difficult to manage for individual teachers who have to simultaneously teach kids in front of them and kids at home.

It’s a worthy debate to have, but it’s all but moot at this point; political leaders have closed the door on distance learning, and the Hawaii State Teachers Association has done the same with blended learning. So unless things take a dramatic turn for the worse, it looks like we’re going to keep going to school as is.

Ma’ema’e Elementary School sign.
Hawaii public schools resumed classes last week after a winter break despite a spike in the number of Covid-19 cases. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

This isn’t a totally unreasonable course of action. Though case counts are higher than ever, preliminary data suggests the omicron variant isn’t as dangerous. A study out of Case Western Reserve University looked at over 500,000 Covid cases across the country to compare the severity of omicron and previous variants. Scientists found a 50% drop in hospitalizations.

For those who ended up in hospitals with omicron, the amount of patients admitted to the ICU was halved, and the need to be put on a ventilator dropped by 75%. This study has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it is consistent with omicron data coming from South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Part of this is explained by higher rates of vaccination now than during the previous variants, but it is also a result of omicron simply being less severe. This is a good thing.

Still, as WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus explained, it’s not accurate to call omicron “mild” since people are still getting hospitalized and dying from it. On top of that, there is also evidence emerging that suggests children under 18 who recover from Covid are at a significantly increased risk of developing diabetes.

If we are dead set on sticking with in-person instruction, we have to be serious about the hurdles ahead.

There are plenty of reasons to want to keep students in classrooms. Those who don’t care all that much about others are worried about lower test scores – who would’ve thought a once-in-a-century pandemic would impact learning? Teachers, however, are rightly worried about the social, emotional and psychological damage caused by being at home away from friends and, in many cases, in unstable and abusive home environments.

But even if we concede that the health risk right now is low enough to justify in-person schooling, the substantial hurdle of staff shortages remains. Teachers have more reasons than ever for calling out of work: getting sick with Covid or something else; a Covid exposure that forces them to quarantine; having to stay home to take care of a child or elderly family member; or using vacation days to which they’re entitled. Whatever the reason a teacher might be out, there are not enough substitutes available to provide adequate coverage.

When that happens, coverage comes in the form of other teachers and school staff doing double duty to fill in the gaps. This is an untenable solution, but it’s unfortunately the best we’ve got right now.

Part of the problem is that substitute teaching is rarely seen as a full-time job, even though it very well could be right now.

Most subs do it on the side for one reason or another: they’re retired but still want something to do from time to time; they want meaningful part-time work that allows them to choose how often they have to clock in; they’re in limbo trying to figure out what they really want to do. If we want more people to be consistent and regular substitute teachers, we have to look at subbing as a vital part of our education system, because that’s what it is.

If we are dead set on sticking with in-person instruction, we have to be serious about the hurdles ahead. Teachers will continue to be out of the classroom, and the lack of substitutes is a serious issue, especially now because of Covid, but also in future school years that are – knock on wood – normal.

A better solution would be to have full-time substitutes as part of the school system, with salaries comparable to teachers of similar qualifications and tenure. They can step in and teach when they’re needed, and if they aren’t needed, they can still assist by providing extra support in classrooms such as working on the side with struggling students or even helping with grading.

Having this kind of substitute teacher force could also make blended learning more feasible if they are used to teach the virtual classes while regular teachers handle the students at school.

Alas, this would require more money being allocated to education to hire more people, which we all know is a long shot. Everyone supports the idea of an effective education system, but few people – especially the politicians who allocate resources for our schools – support the financial realities of maintaining and improving the system to make it effective.

Once again we are faced with a choice that will have profound and lasting impacts on Hawaii’s future, and once again the people most affected by that choice don’t really have a choice at all but to take what they’re given.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Good to see many comments and concerns. One thing I find upsetting is media announcements DOE is desperately trying to recruit teachers. I have met licensed teachers, former principals, MEds, professionals with years of experience, who live in Hawaii are willing & able to teach who are not being contracted. Many don’t want to spend 2yrs & 20k for license. Subs need credit for time served. HI DOE is starting to approve online less expensive and faster paths. At some point DOE decided best bet is to recruit mainland teachers. Here’s thing, they don’t know the cultureS, ultimately are away from home and very often quit in middle of school year. Then subs asked to cover rest of yr without training, support, resources available to contracted teachers, 1/2 pay no benefits doing lesson plans, grading, meetings, curriculum unpaid. I don’t think a teacher who quits minute going gets rough is highly qualified. Subs with graduate degree, professional/life experience, care about the community, don’t quit are highly qualified better bet. Some states accept graduate degrees for licensure. Hawaii does not. Pre Covid 1/3 of Hi DOE faculty were long term subs. Saved big! Pound foolish.

BeeCivil · 4 months ago

Mahalo Eric. The Geni quotient that ties  wealth  inequality  to education, longevity, crime, addiction' even teen pregnancy says that the more equal and valued all strata of a given community feels the happier and socially functioning a community is.40 years of trickle down economics has delivered us to a place where 80% of our economy is shopping and 20% investment in public goods. We have a society of billionaires who push for letting markets solve everything as they inundate us with junk for our minds abd hearts. In Denmark the distance between judges salaries and teachers are not that great. Even refuse workers feel included and valued at the level of justices. Public schools reflect our moral bewilderment and collapse. Fix inequality and you fix schools.

JM · 4 months ago

Please read my post under the article about nursing. The same concept would work for the teacher shortage. What is wrong with the politicians in the Sate of Hawaii that they can rest on their laurels instead of finding viable solutions for the people in our state? I think we all know the answer to my question.

MsH · 4 months ago

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