After graduating from the University of Hawaii Manoa with an English degree, Jillian Morrison wanted some experience as a teacher before committing to further educational studies or a teaching license.
So she decided to work as a substitute teacher for a few days a week at several elementary schools in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. By October 2020, at age 22, she became a long-term sub, teaching seventh grade math at a local intermediate school for the rest of the school year.
“I had no teaching experience, and really almost no work experience when I took on the long-term role,” Morrison said. “Honestly, I was surprised they even wanted me to do it considering how new I was.”
“I did not apply for it, they came to me and asked. I guess they were desperate,” she said.
The demand for substitutes has intensified as the state Department of Education — buckling under the weight of surging Covid cases due to the highly infectious omicron variant — grapples with a high number of teacher absences since school resumed after winter break.
On a single day last week, nearly 2,000 teachers among 13,000 statewide called in sick or stayed home for other reasons like vacation or personal leave, according to DOE data. Even in the first semester of the school year, teacher absentee rates ranged from 14% to 18% in certain geographic areas, with a statewide average of 16%.
“I could sub every day; there’s enough need. The sub line calls me constantly.” — Substitute teacher Michelle Librie
Meanwhile, there aren’t enough substitutes to fill in for teachers, forcing some schools to herd children into gyms and cafeterias to minimize the need for supervision and prompting criticism over the DOE’s insistence on keeping kids on campus instead of returning to online instruction.
The week of Jan. 10, between 350 to nearly 500 daily substitute requests could not be filled, according to the DOE. In some complex areas, like Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui and Nanakuli-Waianae on Oahu, the unfilled sub rate has reached as high as 30%.
DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said the department was “deeply grateful to our teachers who are going above and beyond during this challenging time to help where help is needed” and praised the “school administrators who are juggling multiple responsibilities.”
The staff shortages have underscored problems in recruiting substitute teachers, who are paid a daily rate and already were in short supply pre-pandemic. As of Jan. 11, the DOE system had 3,922 substitutes, down from 4,738 in the 2019-20 school year.
The DOE said it is trying to alleviate the substitute shortage by lowering the minimum job criteria to a high school diploma, implementing an online application form and informing full-time teaching applicants about substitute teaching opportunities.
Flyers promoting the job also are making the rounds on social media.
During a press conference Tuesday, Gov. David Ige said he supports interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi’s plan to continue in-person classes despite the high number of Covid cases. On Jan. 10, the department logged an all-time high of at least 1,035 cases across 201 schools.
“We acknowledge and recognize that in schools, there will be absences due to staff and teacher shortages,” Ige said, adding that Hayashi is working hard to find substitutes.
Some DOE schools have independently switched to temporary distance learning due to the high number of student and staff absences, most recently Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle on Kauai. Last week, it was Sunset Elementary and Waianae Intermediate.
Earlier this month, Hayashi advised principals they could invoke a school code that permits them to assign non-classroom personnel to classrooms if needed.
John Wataoka, the principal of Waianae Intermediate, said he hasn’t had to assign any non-instructional staff to classroom duty, but the school has deployed academic coaches and resource teachers to cover classes.
Substitutes range in experience and level of education obtained, from those who only have a high school diploma to those with a Hawaii teacher’s license, and they are paid accordingly — from $157.02 to $184.66 per day, rates set by the Hawaii Legislature based on the DOE teacher salary schedule.
Many are subbing because of the flexibility in hours and because it is not a full-time responsibility. That enables them to hold down other jobs or pursuits like spending more time with family. Some are retirees, others new graduates who want to try out teaching before going down the full-time path.
Hawaii substitutes, who are subject to a background check, do not receive benefits like health insurance and aren’t paid extra if they fill in on a prolonged basis, which can extend from several months up to an entire school year. Long-term subs, oftentimes, are responsible for drafting lesson plans, assigning homework, giving grades, filling out report cards and meeting with parents.
Furthermore, little training is provided beyond a basic DOE certification course that covers things like how to handle an emergency medical situation in the classroom, but doesn’t cover the core basics of teaching like relationship-building or classroom management.
The preparations are basic: the Hawaii online substitute teacher certification course takes an estimated eight hours to complete.
Morrison — the long-term math sub — said she relied on YouTube videos made by other teachers to really understand what she needed to know in the classroom.
“I just hope I did a good enough job to make sure all my students learned math,” she said. “It’s such an important subject at such a critical time in their education, and I hope I didn’t let them down because I wasn’t prepared or experienced.”
Most placement requests are channeled through a call system known as TSEAS, and substitutes are under no obligation to accept them.
Morrison, who is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Chaminade University, said she gets five to 10 calls a day from the hotline and on top of that, several calls from specific school officials who know her personally.
She even gets texts from teachers for whom she’s subbed before, “asking if I can fill in for them for dates they are trying to book in advance.”
“I wish I could help them all but I can’t,” she said.
The calls from TSEAS are so frequent for substitute teacher Michelle Librie that she has started putting her phone on Do Not Disturb while sleeping.
“I could sub every day; there’s enough need. The sub line calls me constantly,” said the 10-year DOE veteran, who took a leave of absence shortly after the pandemic hit so she could spend more time at home with her kids.
Librie chooses to sub only at Kailua Elementary and Kailua Intermediate, where her children attend, two to three days a week, since she’s familiar with their Covid-19 safety protocols and environment.
In Hawaii, there is a history of fraught relations between substitutes and the state. In 2012, the state agreed to pay $14 million to 9,000 substitutes to settle daily wage claims from between Nov. 2000 and June 2005. In 2017, the Hawaii Supreme Court rejected a bid to collect an additional $56 million in back pay and interest on behalf of substitutes and part-time teachers between 2000 and 2012.
Angela Isaacson was working as a paraprofessional — a classroom aide role where she would float classroom to classroom — at Kaneohe Elementary before she was asked to go through the substitute certification process so she could sub for a few teachers.
She was a long-term sub for fifth graders and most recently, was substitute-teaching a third grade class until a new hire started full-time this week.
Isaacson estimates she’s making $40 more per day as a substitute, but she also says subbing is more work.
“It can be challenging. With Covid, everything is different,” she said. “The kids are feeling uncertain about a lot of things.”
Still, Isaacson said it helped that the kids already knew her from her lunch and recess duty and helping out with pickups and drop-offs.
“You get to know the kids by sight,” she said. “If I was completely new to the school and coming in to sub, then it would definitely be a lot harder because you really do have to start from scratch.”
But for some people like Veronica Willkie, who was a former full-time DOE teacher turned sub, it’s more than just the low pay that is driving frustration in the education community.
“Money is part of it, but it has to do with respect,” she said. She said the DOE does not treat teachers with grace when it fills classrooms with 25 to 30 kids or puts the onus on teachers to purchase school supplies.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter.
At Kainalu Elementary, the school doesn’t use the term “substitute” but “guest teacher,” which makes the kids light up.
“That’s what brings teachers back, every single day,” Willkie said. “It’s knowing that even if the bosses who hire you don’t value you the way you know you should be valued, your students do.”
Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.