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Substitute teacher shortage means fewer barriers to hiring teachers

By Anthony Hennen

While the pandemic has upset the norm in education, a substitute teacher shortage in Pennsylvania has sparked changes to state law and continues to delay the return of a normal school day.

The shortage sometimes means pay spikes for substitutes, cutting into school district budgets. In the long run, shortages may require more tax revenue to cover costs and attract teachers.

Some schools have turned to remote days or shut down when they became shorthanded, like they did during a rise in COVID-19 cases, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted. By February, disruptions in Pennsylvania and nationally leveled off, but the supply of substitute teachers remains small.

Act 91, signed into law last year, made it easier for retired teachers, former teachers with inactive certificates, and soon-to-be college graduates to serve as substitutes, but those measures aren’t seen as an ultimate solution to shortages.

“I realize it’s going to take some time for the provisions to be executed, and we must continue to devise interim solutions to meet what I think is a, really, most urgent need,” Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-Jacobus, said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing with the Department of Education.

For its part, the Department of Education has loosened some restrictions and is trying an all-hands-on-deck approach to remove barriers for becoming a teacher.

“We need to continue to explore what traditionally was considered the nontraditional routes and elevate them into making them traditional pathways as well,” Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said. “Otherwise we’re not going to make the dent that we need to make.” 

Ortega said making no distinction between the traditional path to teaching certification and alternative entry can help districts be more efficient and much more affordable. Working with student-teacher programs and universities to better align standards with what local districts need is another department effort currently ongoing.

Nor are substitutes the only workers missing around school districts.

“The number of school bus drivers has been steadily declining since about 2018,” Phillips-Hill said.

Department of Education Deputy Secretary Sherri Smith noted the numbers are improving, “but we have a ways to go.” Some districts, Smith said, have even paid parents to drive their children to school while the district is short on drivers.

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