It used to be that when Cordelia Watson got an automated call to substitute teach at the Los Angeles Unified School District, there was a specific script that included the name of the teacher she'd be replacing for the day.
Now, she says, there is so much turnover and so many teachers calling out sick or quarantining with COVID, that the system can't keep up. The messages often exclude any mention of a particular teacher.
"The call comes in the morning and the voice says, 'We have an assignment for ... vacancy,'" Watson told NPR. "That means the actual teacher, the one with the training, doesn't work for the district anymore and they haven't been replaced."
Watson, who is 25 and an uncredentialed substitute with a degree in Theater Arts, says the "vacancy" calls are on the rise as burned-out teachers and experienced substitutes have abandoned the field. Meanwhile, the fill-in requests have jumped from one or two days on a single assignment to 20 days.
Those calls fill her with anxiety and raise a number of red flags about what she can expect as a substitute at the country's second-largest school district. Unfortunately, Watson says, she sees no end to the calls anytime soon as the district continues to implement weekly testing of all staff and students.
This week – the first after winter break – more than 65,000 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 and that has officials scrambling to find substitute teachers and other staffers.
The same is true for school systems across the country facing unprecedented shortages of qualified teachers. On top of all that, the omicron variant and the continuing fallout of the winter surge is pushing public school leaders to the brink of desperation. Some have even called on parents with no background in education to take on long-term substitute assignments.
The current crisis is also forcing local and state officials to temporarily rewrite rules to make it easier to hire substitutes and other necessary staff.
Lawmakers rewriting rules to keep kids in school
Earlier this week in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an executive order that expedites the hiring process and gives schools more flexibility in staffing decisions, including allowing substitute teacher contracts to be extended and removing barriers for recently retired teachers to return to the classroom. The order expires at the end of March.
Newsom said he hopes the move will make it possible "to keep our kids safely in person for the remainder of the year and get through this next three to six or so weeks."
In Kansas, state officials are now open to having teens with no college experience take charge of students. The state Board of Education on Wednesday announced it lowered requirements for obtaining an emergency substitute teaching license as a "last resort."
Under the new declaration, substitute applicants won't be required to have completed at least 60 semester credit hours from a regionally accredited college or university as they currently do. They will need to have a high school diploma, be at least 18 years old, pass a background check, have a verified commitment from a district for employment, and submit a completed application to the state education department.
The measure is set to expire on June 1.
As of this week, Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson said several school districts are on the verge of renewed closures without enough staff to operate.
Throughout the Kansas City metro area, teachers and administrators are already sacrificing their breaks and lesson planning periods to cover the vacancies. It's a temporary stopgap that schools around the country have adopted in recent months.
Watson called the current situation the "tip of the iceberg," adding, "We're just on the front edge of this as we see it. This, I think, will be of help."
As KUT's Claire McInerny reported, school districts across Texas – where schools can't be funded unless they provide an in-person option – the Austin Independent School District "had 100 more sub requests last week compared to the same week last year." The nearby Hays Consolidated School District has exhausted its thin substitute rolls, and officials are now asking parents to be substitutes.
Florida's Sun Sentinel reports the school district in Palm Beach County had 348 vacant teaching jobs as of Oct. 4, compared to the 221 open spots in 2020.
The problem is so severe in Broward County that in November students from multiple classes with no teachers were warehoused together in cafeterias, auditoriums or gymnasiums. In such circumstances, it is impossible to provide any instruction so students are given coursework to complete on their own or told to watch a movie.
"We have these vacancies on top of the shortage of substitutes who still don't want to come in to deal with education during COVID," Justin Katz, president of the teacher's union in Palm Beach County, told the Sun Sentinel.
Oregon's education officials are trying to lure new substitutes by dropping college degree requirements. New rules also waive fees for would-be educators putting any associated expenses on the shoulders of the hiring school district or charter school. Candidates must pass a background check and submit to fingerprinting. Emergency licenses obtained in the state will be good for six months.
Substitutes are not babysitters
But just having an adult in every classroom is not the same as having a teacher in the classroom, Watson said.
"That doesn't mean that students are actually going to learn anything. It just means they have a babysitter," she said.
Watson says she's glad the governor stepped in but doesn't expect the recently announced changes to have much of an impact at LA Unified. Even before the latest round of statewide rule changes, the district was already asking substitutes to extend the maximum 20-day contracts in any given class.
"I'm going into classrooms where the students have never had an assigned credentialed teacher and we're at the start of the second semester," she said.
That constant disruption has put a lot of stress on kids and the adults who are sent in to try to keep them on track. Just before winter break, Watson was called in for a three-week assignment teaching a high school art class with more than 40 students in some periods.
"I had no idea what they knew or what they'd been doing and I was supposed to give them their final grade. That's just an impossible situation," she said, exasperatedly.
The constant rotation of new people is also causing serious behavioral issues, she observed, noting that classroom management has become one of the most difficult aspects of the job for her and many of her colleagues.
"They're different now," Watson says, describing the children she's been teaching over the last two years. "They are rambunctious and they are difficult."
"On Thursday I had different staff from the school coming in and sitting in the class and supporting me because it was ... it was just too much for me," she said.
"This definitely wasn't what I signed up for when I first applied," Watson said, explaining that her first day on the job was two weeks before the statewide shutdown in March 2020.
She hung in there as educators were called in to adapt to remote learning. She hung in there as students returned to in-person learning. But now she says, "I think it's time to have an honest conversation about what parents want their kids to get from school. Do they really want them to get an education? Because that's not happening."