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Substitute teacher shortage affecting 3 out of 4 Oklahoma school districts

We see the backs of students' heads as they face the front of a classroom.  The students look middle-schoolish and have their backpacks hung from the backs of their chairs.
Kenny Eliason

Gregory Hardin is always in demand.

He’s a full-time substitute teacher in a state with a shortage of adults to fill in for absent educators.

Hardin, of Shawnee, said he’s had no trouble finding openings four to five days a week since he started substitute teaching in November 2019. What initially was a way for Hardin, 25, to get classroom experience while studying education in college has become a full-time job.

Gregory Hardin
Haven Price
Gregory Hardin

“I’m always getting a call,” he said. “I would say there’s not really much of a difference that I would notice whether it would be this year or last year or two or three years ago when I first started subbing.”

While some schools have increased wages, 73% of districts in the state say they still anticipate a shortage of substitutes this school year, according to a survey by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

COVID-19 heightened demand for substitutes to a critical level, but school leaders say there was a shortage even before the pandemic.

“As long as there’s a teacher shortage, there’s going to be a substitute shortage, as well,” said Aaron Espolt, superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools.

Daily pay rates for substitutes have grown in Shawnee, Moore, Edmond, Putnam City, Norman and Oklahoma City schools since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.

The largest Oklahoma City-area districts now offer between $85-$125 a day to substitutes with a teaching license and $70-$110 for those who are uncertified. School leaders say they choose a daily wage their district can afford that’s competitive with what their neighbors offer.

Hardin said daily rates should increase even more to $125-$175 to ensure a livable wage for eight hours of work. He said workers won’t consider substitute positions if other hourly jobs offer higher pay.

“Why would they take a break from those jobs to go sub if they’re not making the same amount of money as eight hours at Starbucks?,” Hardin said. “The cost-benefit analysis isn’t there.”

But rather than paying more, some school districts face the possibility of cutting their substitute pay. Putnam City and Oklahoma City schools both increased their daily rates for substitutes with federal COVID-19 relief money — funding that will expire next year.

Currently, all of Oklahoma City Public Schools’ substitute pay comes from pandemic relief dollars. District administrators said they haven’t decided what rate their schools will pay next year.

Putnam City’s rates already fell. When COVID-19 cases were at their peak, the district offered $70 daily stipends from federal relief funds on top of the usual substitute wages.

Stipends are down to $45 this semester, and next semester’s rates are yet to be determined, district spokesperson AJ Graffeo said.

Other districts, like Shawnee and Moore Public Schools, said none of their pandemic stimulus funds were tied to substitute pay, so next year’s expiration date should have no bearing on how much they offer.

Moore raised its wages this year to $100 a day for certified substitutes and $85 for non-certified. Superintendent Robert Romines said that’s helped improve the rate of substitutes covering teacher absences.

“We have to have great people leading the charge when your certified staff or support staff are gone,” Romines said. “They’re instrumental in making sure the doors stay open and making sure we can function as a school district.”

Schools had no shortage of substitute teachers 15 to 20 years ago, despite offering close to the minimum wage, said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

Back then, Oklahoma wasn’t mired in a teacher shortage, either, he said, and there were more people working as substitutes to get their foot in the door of education — like Hardin.

Today, teachers have to merge an absent colleague’s classes into their own and give up their plan hours to cover other classrooms when substitutes aren’t available.

“That’s why it’s so important to have a caring adult who’s willing to go in and help the students learn each and every day,” Hime said. “Every day you lose instruction is a significant amount of learning that you may never get back.”

This story was originally published by Oklahoma Voice, part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.
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