Paige Robinson is swamped with requests to step in as a substitute teacher in schools all across Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Charlottesville City Schools and Albemarle County Public Schools are among the many districts in the country that don’t have enough substitute teachers. The lack of substitutes has forced current ones, like Robinson, to juggle more requests than she expected in her first year of subbing.

The need for subs has gotten so great, she double-books herself by accident.

“It has been hectic the entire school year,” she said.

School districts around the nation are scrambling to address the substitute teacher shortages. Some, like Charlottesville City Schools, have lowered their qualification requirements. Previously, applicants needed some college to qualify. Now, a high school diploma is enough. Albemarle already requires a high school diploma to substitute. Both districts have also increased substitutes’ pay.

“It’s definitely taken a toll on everybody,” said Beth Baptist, interim director of human resources for Charlottesville City Schools. “I think everybody has just sort of realized that it’s part of the deal and it’s been part of the labor shortage that we’ve had.”

Other teachers, and even principals, step in for absent teachers, said Baptist.

Before the shortage, Albemarle High School special education teacher Erin Wise-Ackenbom would rarely sub for another teacher while in school. Now, often uses her planning period — one she uses to keep up with her student’s Individualized Education Program documents — to aid other teachers. Wise-Ackenbom has gotten used to planning her classes before or after school. She misses the help of substitute teachers, she said.

“Subbing during your off time is really difficult on your career and your own sanity,” said Wise-Ackenbom.

The substitute teacher shortage started long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but worsened considerably after local schools returned to full-time in-person learning in August, said Dan Redding, head of human resources at Albemarle County Public Schools. Many of the people who were subbing did not return.

Before the pandemic, Albemarle schools would, on average, have access to enough subs to cover between 70% and 80% of their teacher absences, Redding said. That percentage is known as a “fill rate.” In August, it dropped to 50%.

The rate is slowly getting back to normal, Redding said. At the end of February, Albemarle schools reported a fill rate within the mid-60s.

In late January, the Albemarle School Board increased the daily rate from $97 to $140 — matching what  Charlottesville City Schools began offering last fall — to garner more substitutes.

Albemarle and Charlottesville teachers get extra pay for subbing during their free periods, $13 and $21 per period respectively.

The incentives will run until the end of the school year in both districts but could be extended if the shortages persist.

Redding said the school district hopes to hire more school-based substitutes, full-time employees at a school who are paid at a higher rate than non-school-based substitutes. The change is proposed in the budget for the upcoming school year. 

Larger schools, like Albemarle High School, would have up to four in-house substitutes, said Redding. Albemarle schools have also hired a central substitute coordinator to recruit, train and serve as a human resource agent for substitute teachers. That coordinator began work this week.

“I feel like we’re heading in the right direction,” said Redding. “It’s certainly a great opportunity for community members who have some flexibility in their schedule.”

Area school districts have also tapped into local universities in their search for replacement teachers. Student teachers at the University of Virginia’s School of Education are being hired out of their internships at rates higher than before, said Jeff Davis, director of Curriculum, Instruction and Special Education.

In previous years, only a small handful of specialized student teachers would get hired toward the end of their internships. Davis said almost half of this year’s cohort of about 150 students have been hired, some a just weeks into their months-long internships, to serve as long-term substitutes.

“In a way, it’s been a little bit of a mixed blessing,” said Davis. “At least, they’re able to get paid while they’re doing this even if it is less time to work directly with an actual teacher.”

Still, Redding said it is unclear when substitute teaching will return to pre-pandemic levels.

Schools have also had a shortage of bus drivers in the last two years. Read more about that issue here.

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Tamica Jean-Charles

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's education and families reporter. Reach out to me by email or on Twitter. Also, subscribe to our newsletter! C’mon, it’s free.