PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – School districts across Oregon are struggling to find enough substitutes as teachers call out or fall ill during the latest surge of COVID-19. 

In Salem-Keizer Public Schools Wednesday, there were 622 absences among all staffed positions and 271 of them were unfilled, meaning no one was available to cover them. 

The Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which oversees substitute teacher licensing, said some districts are doing OK while some, like Salem-Keizer, can’t find enough substitute teachers to cover all teacher absences. 

Kirsten Fauser is a substitute teacher in the Salem-Keizer district and said things have been hectic and there’s never a shortage of work opportunities. She said it used to be normal to see 10 substitute opportunities listed each day. Now, it’s not uncommon to see 100. 

“I’ve had teachers, like, approach me in class, like, asking me if I would be available for, like, a day that they’re going to have trying to get a sub lined up earlier in advance,” she said. 

For her, it’s a good thing. She knows work is guaranteed every day. However, for the district, it’s been a bit of a nightmare. Salem-Keizer Public Schools decided to cancel school on Friday due to staff illness and shortage. Superintendent Christy Perry said she hopes that between the day off Friday and another day off Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that her staff will have some time to recover. 

“We’re seeing it across the board and it just puts us in a place where it’s really stressing the system. We chose for Friday to do a ‘non-student-contact day’ so that we could have educators have a day to do some planning, because many of them have been subbing for their colleagues,” she said. 

Brian Turner, director of recruitment and staffing at Salem-Keizer Public Schools, confirmed that school employees have been covering for one another. He said teachers have been using their preparation periods to substitute for other teachers and administrative staff are also filling in. 

He said the substitute teacher shortage has always been an issue, more so in Title One schools than other schools, but not to this extent. In previous years, he said the district would be able to fill 90-99% of classroom licensed positions with substitutes and it felt like a crisis when they couldn’t reach 100%. Now, they’re hitting the 70% range. 

Turner hopes people will see the need and decide to become substitute teachers. In October 2021, the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission made a temporary rule that allowed people who do not have a bachelor’s degree to get an emergency substitute teacher license as long as they were sponsored by a district. This meant that a district would provide them with enhanced support and administrative supervision. Their license would only be valid within the sponsoring school district. The district would also be responsible for the application fee. 

Turner said Salem-Keizer Public Schools has been reimbursing substitute teachers for the cost of their licenses. 

“Education across the nation, you can look, everybody’s stretched then. The reality is, our kids need us and they need quality folks in front of them. And you got to seize the moment, carpe diem, so to speak. This is the time to get in front of students and maybe even change your career,” Turner said.

Oregon TSPC said in December 2019 there were approximately 8,300 people licensed to substitute teach. That number decreased to 5,500 in December 2020 and in October 2021 was only 4,700. 

Fauser said even though her job as a substitute teacher has been in high demand, it’s still enjoyable and she said she tells everyone she knows to look into it.  

“The days are super flexible, you get paid pretty well, and I enjoy hanging out with, I do high school, like I said, so I enjoy hanging out with them,” she said. “I have a lot of different experiences every day.” 

KOIN 6 News asked Oregon TSPC if schools were straining the substitute teaching system by choosing to continue in-person classes. 

Deputy Director Trent Danowski said only individual school districts can respond to how strained their local systems may be and that decisions to continue in-person learning are best made at the local level. He said statewide, TSPC continues to receive requests for emergency substitute teaching licenses, although the number of applications is less now than it was before the holidays. 

He said it’s also important to remember that some districts were having challenges finding qualified teachers and substitutes even before the pandemic.