Kyrene School District

This chart shows the teacher absences that Kyrene School District has scrambled to fill with substitutes, who are becoming harder to find amid a nationwide shortage. 

The Kyrene Governing Board last week sweetened the deal for substitute teachers as principals continue to grapple with unfilled absences that at times require administrators to fill in at the head of the classroom.

Thanks to the availability of a third round of federal pandemic relief funds, the board on Nov. 23 increased the daily rate of pay for subs from $115 to $175 while long-term substitutes will earn $200 or $205 a day – up from $140 and $145. The higher of the two rates can be earned by retired Kyrene teachers who opt for long assignments. 

Lisa Gibson, the district’s executive director of talent management and a former Kyrene principal, told the board that the increase would keep Kyrene competitive with other districts, which are going through the same shortage of substitutes.

“On average, we have 45 absences per day that require a substitute and on average 12 classrooms a day are unfilled – which means the staff and students need to go to a plan B,” she said.

Board member Wanda Kolomyjec said she hopes the raise helps.

“I think it’s critical that we are competitive because we want our Kyrene substitutes to stay with us and we want them to come and be willing to do this really challenging work,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to recognize that this is a more challenging job now more than ever because of all the challenges that COVID has brought to our schools and our classrooms.”

COVID-inspired fear has been a major factor in the nationwide shortage of substitute teachers but it isn’t the only one, said Joseph Fitzgerald, vice president of operations for Virginia-based ESSRecruit, which has a contract with Kyrene to recruit substitutes and other employees and process the applications. 

Besides serving private employers, ESSrecruit works with school districts in 30 states and they all are encountering challenges finding permanent and substitute employees, Fitzgerald said.

While fear of COVID has prompted many retired teachers to stay out of classrooms, Fitzgerald said, “It’s a very tight labor market.”

But, he added, COVID has had an impact – “on both sides.”

“You have individuals who want everyone to wear masks and they want to wear a mask they want to come to work and then you have individuals who don’t want to work where a mask is required, so you can’t win,” he said.

Last year, Fitzgerald said, “Utah was basically wide open and they had school every day and we filled classrooms phenomenally well. I think that maybe last year, before the vaccine was available, people were more willing to say ‘we’re doing this to support the schools’ and came to work,” he continued. 

Yet, while he sees “some fatigue with the pandemic” and “more opportunity for them to work if they want to work,” qualified substitutes are still elusive.

To find them, ESSRecruit is going beyond an aggressive social media campaign that is not unlike the equally energetic social media campaign that Phoenix Police and its counterparts have been using in recent months.

It put up digital billboards where it could and while they drew an estimated 407,000 views, Fitzgerald said, “I don’t know how much it helped us but I like to try it because with radio, there’s a gazillion stations. With the billboards, you can’t not see them.”

ESSRecruit also has boots on the ground, sending employees to Kyrene campuses at turkey trots and other school events in the hopes of spotting parents who might have nothing to do while their children are in school.

“We’re doing a lot of school-related events,” he said. “We’re trying to convert people that probably aren’t even in those unemployment numbers and don’t know they’re looking for a job and trying to convince them to come and help support the schools and have a great schedule like their student.” 

“We try to be innovative,” he added. “I love to put lawn signs in the pickup lines at the schools because if a parent is going to pick up an elementary school child at the end of the day and they’re available do that, there’s a chance they’re not working, right?

 To qualify as a substitute teacher, a person must have a bachelor’s degree – in any field, not necessarily education – as well as a substitute teacher certificate. Among the requirements for the latter is a state fingerprint card, issued after an extensive criminal background check.

“We provide a five-hour in-person training that will help give them the tools to start to be a substitute teacher,” said Fitzgerald. “All kinds of people think that you have to go to school to be a teacher and really that’s not the case.”

He also said that ESSRecruit tries to keep the time between application and starting the job as tight as possible.

“If we have a motivated person that fills out their application and gets their substitute license, we should be able to hire them in three weeks,” Fitzgerald said.

Asked about the new pay the Kyrene board approved, Fitzgerald said, “We’re hopeful that that will help us in recruiting.”

“We’re really excited about this bold move,” he said.

And one thing the district can count on is that this job never stops.

“We’re always hiring and we’re never going to stop hiring,” he said. 

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