Substitute teacher shortage hits California’s low-income students harder

“There’s a lot going on in those classrooms,” said Nathalie Hrizi, the vice president of substitutes for the San Francisco Unified teachers union who is also running for  California state insurance commissioner. “The substitutes are highly impacted by that because they don’t have the relationships that education is built around.”

San Francisco Unified tried to address these inequities with mixed results. A San Francisco ballot measure passed in 2008 levied a local parcel tax that helped fund benefits and higher pay for substitutes who work for certain high-needs schools.

Those subs make $241 a day compared to the standard rate of $225 a day for their first 10 days of work. Their pay is then bumped to $271 a day. But the 23 schools selected for the program on average filled less than 30% of their teacher absences with substitutes during the January surge. Districtwide, schools on average filled 45% of their teacher absences.

No San Francisco Unified officials would be interviewed, but district spokesperson Laura Dudnick said the district is actively recruiting subs and that many districts in the region are facing a “dire substitute shortage.”

Cindy Diaz, a substitute at Long Beach Unified, said subs worry about their personal safety working in neighborhoods that have reputations for violent crime. She said some subs who don’t speak Spanish will avoid schools with high numbers of English learners.

“It’s about the unknown,” she said. “Is it a safe area for me to park? Am I going to need to worry about my personal safety? Am I going to have a problem with discipline?”

The challenge of being a sub

While some schools are overlooked by subs, subs themselves often feel underappreciated.

“Office staff sometimes try to bully you into giving up your free period and take extra classes,” said Patricia Wallinga, an aspiring music composer who relies on substitute teaching at San Francisco Unified as her main source of income.

She caught COVID-19 in January. At the time, she was working as a long-term substitute for an advanced English class.

Wallinga started working as a substitute in late 2019, just before the pandemic. She stopped in March 2020 when schools statewide went virtual, and there was less demand for subs as teachers worked from home. The number of new substitutes statewide that year plummeted.

Data from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing shows that the state issued 15,251 substitute teaching permits in the 2019-20 school year. The following year, it issued 9,265, the largest drop in five years.

But when schools reopened in the fall of 2021 and substitutes like Wallinga returned to working in-person, the state’s supply of new substitutes swelled. According to David DeGuire, a spokesman for the commission, as of last month 22,759 new substitutes received permits this school year.

Diaz, the sub at Long Beach Unified, said she felt more appreciated this year by office staff, especially during the omicron surge.

“They take the time to say, ‘Thank you for coming in,’” she said. “They used to act like they’re doing me a favor.”

While some subs avoid schools with more high-needs students, Wallinga said the main factor for her is location. She only works at schools that are close to her home and reachable by public transportation, and chooses jobs based on the quality of the lesson plan the teacher leaves her.

“It’s night and day,” she said. “These kids know when they’re cared for and when they’re not.”

She has worked at both low-income and higher-income schools and said the disparities are obvious.

“I think, gee, this school has a 60-piece orchestra, and this school doesn’t have pens,” she said.

In California students from low-income households score lower on standardized tests and are less likely to graduate high school. Substitutes and teachers say instability in students’ home lives can lead them to be disruptive in class. While teachers can develop trusting relationships with these students, substitutes say they have a harder time forming that bond during their short stints in the classroom.

David Zaid, who oversees human resources for Long Beach Unified, said the district tried to address this issue by placing one or two permanent subs at certain high-needs schools.

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