Eagle County Schools faces substitute shortage on top of staffing challenges

District seeks creative solutions as teachers step up to fill classroom vacancies

One of the most tangible ways community members can aid the district right now is by joining its substitute office.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

Between staffing shortages and regular teacher absences, guest teachers play an important role in the local school district. However, right now, the need for substitute teachers in the district is at an all-time high.

“The trickle-down effect of that is that staff, across the district, are filling in just so we can continue with our primary mission of educating students in person,” said Superintendent Philip Qualman at a negotiations meeting on Wednesday.

“Any of our secondary goals around equity, wellness, systems of support, even providing adequate planning time — all those things are taking a hit because teachers are stepping in to cover for their colleagues that are out. Administrators are doing the same; district personnel are coming into buildings to cover. So, we’re barely able to keep the doors open and provide the instruction that we need to,” he said.

Adele Wilson, the chief human resource officer for Eagle County Schools, said in an email the district’s need for guest teachers is always high. However, over the past year, the district has had fewer guest teachers and job applicants seeking to become one.

The district currently has about 120 guest teachers on its list, but only about 20 are actively filling positions. Qualman said the fill rate for guest teachers — or the percentage of teacher absences being filled by a substitute — has been around 30% to 35% in recent weeks. He said the rate typically is closer to 60%.

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Wilson said that the decrease in applications might be attributed to “apprehension to the classroom environment under existing conditions, and many have been collecting unemployment.”

The result: Teachers — already stretched thin and stressed — are being asked to fill in where necessary, but it’s not a sustainable solution.

“Our teachers work hard daily to provide high-quality instruction,” Wilson said “Inevitably, they need to be out of a classroom due to illness, to take care of loved ones or receive additional professional development.”

The district recently said it would pay certified teachers $30 an hour for filling absences. The compensation extends to teachers giving up planning time to teach or when they absorb a class of eight or more students.

This is something that Mitch Forsberg, principal at Gypsum Elementary and member of the negotiations team, said helps extend the appreciation for teachers “being asked to do more” to “help keep schools open and afloat” beyond “just a ‘thank you’ and an ‘atta boy.'”

Recruiting more guest teachers

At the negotiations meeting Wednesday afternoon, several members of the district leadership team, two principals and representatives of the Eagle County Education Association met to discuss the challenges many of the schools are facing, including the shortage of guest teachers.

“I understand we have to keep schools open. I get it: We have to maintain operational capacity — but with the sub shortage, there are some people who are worried about not being able to make life events or just make those appointments that take six months to get into and that kind of stuff,” said Doug Little, a teacher at Eagle Valley Elementary and a member of the negotiations team for the Eagle County Education Association. “Those are real concerns, and it gets to be a slippery slope.”

During the meeting, the negotiations teams discussed ways the district could incentivize the community to step up as guest teachers.

Wilson identified in the meeting that substitutes are citing three nonfinancial reasons for not wanting to fill positions.

“Unfortunately, the biggest barrier is the culture in the building when they are welcomed or unwelcomed into the building. That is the 110% the biggest barrier,” she said, adding that the next is COVID-19, and the third is technology.

Currently, the district pays guest teachers $150 — or $18.75 an hour — for a full day of teaching. This is a recent increase, as the district was previously paying its substitutes $17.15 an hour. Guest teachers that cover for long-term leaves — like maternity or medical leaves — are eligible for an increase in pay from the sixth day on, depending on their certification.

One benefit that is extended to guest teachers is they are eligible for the Public Employer Retirement Association, Wilson said, under which an employee makes a 10% contribution each check and the school district makes a 20.9% contribution each check.

Potential solutions the district has discussed with the school board and with the negotiations team include offering bonuses for guest teachers once they fill a certain number of days. According to Wilson, this is a strategy that Mesa County Public Schools has recently deployed, offering about $1,500 to guest teachers who work 40 days and $750 for 20 days.

“What we think might be more enticing is if you get thrown something every few days,” Wilson said.

Wilson said at the meeting that the Education Foundation of Eagle County is willing to repeat a program they did last year in which they gave the district $2,000 in $50 bills to hand out to substitutes who worked 10 days. She added that the foundation is going to give the district $1,000 likely by the end of this week to distribute however the district decides.

While the group discussed possible incentives for guest teachers, Qualman acknowledged that future discussions must include some for current staff.

“Everybody is picking up the load, so some type of acknowledgment or incentive for those that are existing staff should be part of (the) plan,” he said.

These discussions are intended to occur both at future school board meetings and negotiations.

Becoming a guest teacher

At recent board meetings, district leadership and teachers alike said joining the district’s substitute office is one of the most tangible ways to help schools right now.

“Current conditions have led to staff shortages for various reasons, including illness, personal appointments, long-term absences in addition to professional learning,” Wilson said. “Pulling our community together to assist is a great way to help out.”

Anyone interested in becoming a guest teacher can submit an employment application with the district to start the process. To be considered, applicants must either possess or be able to possess a substitute authorization or teaching license from the Colorado Department of Education to work as a guest teacher.

The Colorado Department of Education offers one-year, three-year and five-year authorizations for those eligible. Requirements include holding a high school diploma and having experience working with children for the one-year license, a bachelor’s or higher degree from an accredited college or university for the three-year, and for the five-year authorization applicants must have an active or expired Colorado teacher’s license or an active license in another state.

“Human resources reviews applications on a daily basis and invites candidates to interview. Once interviewed, offered a job, and in receipt of an active substitute authorization/teaching license, human resources invites them to attend an orientation and training. After completing orientation and training, they are able to start working,” Wilson said of the process for hiring and onboarding.

Of the job itself, Wilson said, “the best benefit is working with our youth, the future of tomorrow.”

“Eagle County School District educators and students need the support of our community in our classrooms,” Wilson said. The community “can make a big difference by choosing to be a guest teacher and supporting our schools.”

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