When Jessica Potter, the principal at Center Woods Elementary in Weare, N.H., planned for COVID-related absences this year, she and her staff booked every available substitute teacher months in advance.
But last week, the school had twice as many staff absences as available substitute teachers. So, Potter shifted gears: She reassigned special education staff. Office staff and the assistant principal covered classrooms. Potter herself even subbed for the school nurse.
“I liken it to triage every day with our staff,” she said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, schools in New Hampshire and across the country are reeling under ongoing staff shortages. More teachers are having to quarantine due to COVID, either because they’re sick themselves or they’re caring for sick family members. And substitute teachers — who’ve been in short supply for years — are now more critical than ever to keeping schools open.
While the pandemic has exacerbated existing staffing shortages, many school leaders in New Hampshire say the current crisis is years in the making. Substitute teacher schedules are unpredictable and the pay is low; even with recent increases, substitute teacher salaries in New Hampshire range from $75 to $125 a day. Many substitute teachers are older and haven’t worked during the pandemic due to concerns about COVID exposure.
All of this, combined with record COVID infections during January’s omicron surge, is making it hard for school leaders to keep doors open and continue in-person classes.
“[Staff] are pulling together despite how hard it is, but we can’t keep doing this,” Potter said. “This is so far from normal.”
This month, some districts have hired college students home for winter break to replenish the substitute teacher ranks. Julia Otero, an education major at University of New Hampshire, is one of them. She’s working as a substitute in the Pelham school district.
She’s covered positions across the school building due to COVID-related staff absences. Teachers help her find worksheets to keep students busy, but sometimes she’s on her own.