Lack of substitutes keeps schools scrambling for coverage

Wrangell schools need substitute teachers, and they’re looking anywhere and everywhere.

The substitute drought has been a problem for a few years, but it’s been made worse by COVID-19 and a lack of people willing to work.

“Currently, we have 16 substitutes on the list, which means three or four are available on any given day,” said Kimberly Powell, administrative assistant for the school district. “We could use 10 more.”

Powell said in the past they have had 25 substitutes on the call list, making it easier to cover for any staff — from teachers to librarians and custodians — who might be absent due to illness, travel or any other reason.

“It’s been a problem all year. It started last year, of course, but it’s just gotten worse this year,” said Bob Davis, assistant principal of the high school and middle school. “Teachers have cut back on their personal travel just because they know it’s been difficult.”

In a nationwide poll of school administrators conducted by EducationWeek last summer, “slightly more than three-quarters of respondents said they’re having trouble finding enough substitutes to cover teacher absences; 68% said bus drivers are hard to come by; and 55% said they’re struggling to fill open positions for paraprofessionals and instructional aides.”

Davis said when all the available substitutes are filling in, other teachers and staff such as librarians and secretaries cover the remaining classes needing subs. Even student teachers have filled in where possible.

“Delton Claggett is a student teacher and he was able to get certification. He stepped in and took over for Heather Howe when she left on maternity leave,” Davis said. “Last year we actually had two student teachers that helped keep us afloat.”

The drawback to student teachers, Davis said, was that they still taking classes themselves and trying to learn, limiting what they can do. Then there are years when there are no student teachers.

In some cases, long-term substitutes get hired permanently, such as Tracey Martin at the elementary school. Martin was a long-term sub for teacher Tawney Crowley when she was out on maternity leave. When Crowley returned, Martin was hired to fill another teaching position at the school. Though it was helpful to have a former educator available to take the job, it took a substitute off the availability list.

District staff are reaching out as many ways as possible to find substitutes.

“We’re holding on by our fingernails some days and we just can’t find anyone to fill slots,” said Schools Superintendent Bill Burr. “We’ve made personal pleas. It’s in every one of my superintendent reports.”

In addition to needing substitutes, Powell said there are three paraprofessional positions open at the elementary school. “They are part-time positions. It’s a good variety of tasks. It’s a fun, energetic job.” Paraprofessionals, traditionally referred to as aides, provide one-on-one instruction for special-needs children.

Applicants don’t need any type of teaching certification to be a sub, Powell said. They just need to pass a background check, have patience and like working with children. Anyone can be considered for the position barring convictions of crimes against children, violent crimes or recent drug convictions, she said. Any other criminal past activity is taken on a case-by-case basis.

The jobs allow applicants to pick the days and where they’d like to work, whether at the high school, middle or elementary school.

The hourly pay for substitutes ranges from $13 to $19, depending on the position and whether an applicant is state certified or not.

Those interested in applying can call the district office at 907-874-2347 or email for more information.

Powell said they’ve placed classified ads for the open positions, posted online with job boards and social media, even going old school where necessary. “I’ve called every person I know.”


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