PORTSMOUTH, Va. - For generations, when teachers have called out, substitutes have stepped in.
However, in Portsmouth, the pandemic has forced the public school system to change when substitutes are used.
Jessica Duren, the executive director of human resources for Portsmouth Public Schools, said, "Typically, if a teacher was going to be out for any significant amount of time, they would be able to secure a substitute. Because of virtual instruction that has been going on for 2020-2021, we have been using long-term substitutes. [Teachers] can certainly take off whatever time that they need, but if they do take off for less than five days, then a substitute will not be secured [and] their colleagues will be helping to stand in the gap."
In these scenarios, school administrators are responsible for assigning any work that would be missed in a teacher's absence.
"I'm sure that is the case, where there are instances where a teacher may feel a bit overwhelmed if they have to stand in the gap for a colleague, but one great thing about Portsmouth is even though it's a relatively large school division, it's like a family. You will find colleagues do a great job of supporting one another here," Duren said.
If a teacher is out for longer than five days, students will be given what's called a long-term substitute. Long-term substitutes in Portsmouth are paid $125 per day, as opposed to regular substitutes, who are paid $95 per day.
While the pay is comparable to surrounding districts, administrators said getting qualified adults in the classroom has posed a challenge for years, even before the pandemic.
Early last year, between December 2019 and January 2020, the EdWeek Research Center looked at nationwide challenges that school districts encounter when hiring substitute teachers. According to the non-profit, non-partisan research organization's findings of an online survey of more than 2,000 principals, district leaders and school board members, districts are currently able to fill just 54 percent of the approximately 250,000 teacher absences each day.
In Portsmouth, Duren said they have a steady group of substitutes that they can select from.
"We typically have around 350 qualified substitutes in our pool at any one time during the school year. At this point we're utilizing approximately 60 of those substitutes in a long-term capacity," she said. "A lot of that pool consists of students that are in college and people who might be seeking full-time appointment."
With the return to in-person learning looming, Portsmouth Public Schools is planning for all scenarios.
"Even with mitigation strategies, there may be times where someone will contract COVID, and in that case we may need to have them out for the 14-day period or even longer," Duren said.
However, she said she doesn't foresee any district-wide shortages keeping substitutes from these roles. She also added that all teachers and substitutes have been given the opportunity to receive the vaccine.
She said, "Portsmouth Public Schools appreciate the hard work that our teachers have been doing during this unprecedented time, standing in the gap for their colleagues and also providing great instruction to our students as well as the substitute teachers."
According to Virginia Code:
A. No substitute teacher shall be used to fill a vacant teaching position for more than 90 teaching days in such vacancy during one school year.
B. Substitute teachers shall be at least 18 years of age, hold a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, and have two years of full-time post-secondary education or two years of work experience with children.
C. A substitute teacher employed to fill a teacher vacancy shall receive orientation to the school's policies and procedures.
For more information on becoming a substitute teacher in Portsmouth, click here.