'We Didn't Learn Anything': Bay Area Teacher Sub Shortage Leaves Students Hanging

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A young woman wearing a knitted sweater stands outside.
Berkeley High senior Neva Zamil says staffing shortages are part of a chaotic 2021-22 school year. (Courtesy of Maize Cline)

Substitute teachers are part of the national labor shortage, and their absence has been stressing school administrators in the Bay Area since school began three months ago.

Unfortunately, the problem is expected to get worse as the winter cold and flu season approaches and more school teachers are likely to call in sick. The shortage is hurting students, who are missing weeks of instruction, adding to turmoil inside schools in a year already made disruptive by the pandemic. According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Washington, it has become "challenging to get a clear and timely picture about the staffing challenges schools face as comprehensive data on the supply and demand of school personnel is generally only available long after the fact."

Many school districts have had trouble filling teacher vacancies. And when the teachers on staff miss work, it’s crucial to have a sufficient number of substitute teachers available. But sub numbers have dwindled across the Bay Area, and the shortage appears to be at a crisis point at Berkeley High School, where students are walking out of empty classrooms.

“Just today, we don’t know what happened to our math teacher,” Berkeley High ninth grader Sascha Amendola replied when texted last week. “But she wasn’t here, so we waited 15 minutes and then we just left and wandered around school.”

A young man wearing glasses and a grey t-shirt sits on the steps of a house with a laptop in his lap.
Berkeley High sophomore Sascha Amendola at his house on March 19, 2021. He says he's gotten used to weekly fights and fire alarms being pulled. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Standing outside the high school on a warm fall afternoon, senior Neva Zamil spoke with frustration about how she sees the sub shortage adding to the mayhem.

“Half of the school's population, the sophomores and the freshmen, have not been in school since middle school,” she said. “And so I would describe a lot of the behavior we're seeing as middle school behavior. The fire alarm is pulled like once a week. There are fights every single day, and then you combine that with teacher shortages, and safety officers aren't coming as often and you get chaos.”

Zamil said she had teachers out in her anatomy, AP government and AP literature classes just that week.

Ethnic studies teacher Dana Moran agrees with students that there has been much more fighting and unruly behavior this year.

“We are also short of safety staff, so the hallways are unmonitored and students are roaming the halls, banging on classroom doors, vandalizing, etcetera,” said Moran.

The situation has become so dire that the district has had to send teachers normally on special assignment for math or literacy coaching to work both as substitutes at the high school, and to replace administrators who typically would be on hall duty but are themselves subbing in classrooms.

The person charged with finding replacements for teachers who are out at Berkeley High is school secretary Marie Ferguson. She says the staffing shortages are across all grades. Each school day morning, she arrives and runs the staff report, which tells her who will be out for the day.

“We may have 12 teachers unfilled, and I have to fill those positions,” Ferguson said, “A lot of people [are] afraid that, you know, come to work with this COVID going on, so it's putting yourself at risk, really. So I think that's part of the problem."

In 2018, Berkeley Unified overall was able to fill 69% of sub requests from the sub pool. That’s down to 58% in 2021.

Berkeley High has been getting creative. Zamil says when her anatomy teacher was out sick for three weeks, a rotation of teachers had to fill in.

“That teacher does not teach the subject, does not have any training in that subject and it just keeps spiraling and spiraling,” she said. “We didn’t learn anything in those three weeks.”

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Zamil thinks the frequent disruption to classroom teaching is especially harmful for freshmen and sophomores, who may be less engaged in school compared with seniors bent on graduating.

“If you don’t have a teacher there for an important subject and you're just forced to do busywork, you lose focus, you lose energy, you lose motivation,” Zamil said.

Administrators and other support staff in Bay Area school districts being called away from their regular responsibilities to step into classrooms creates its own kind of staffing shortage.

At Oakland Technical High School, junior Georgia Wallace said it has been nearly impossible to connect with her counselors.

A young woman wearing a white long sleeved t-shirt and grey jeans holding a mask in her right hand stands outside a house.
Oakland Tech junior Georgia Wallace, outside her home in Oakland in 2021, says staffing issues have made it hard to get help from counselors this year. (Courtesy of Jo Townson)

“You don't go to their office anymore, you fill out a Google Form,” she said. “But they never really get back to you, or you email them and they don't respond.”

Wallace called the staff "overwhelmed" at a time when they are supposed to be helping her plan her way into college.

“They’re just kind of like, I don't know, like, figure it out,” she said. “Like, it's kind of, like, ‘Fend for yourself because I have too much work and I can't deal with you.’”

The principal at Oakland Tech referred questions about staffing shortages to the district, which acknowledged the lack of substitutes district-wide, adding that it's common for some staff-juggling to take place when a sub can’t be found. Also, the teacher staffing problem in the Bay Area is not a result of COVID outbreaks and quarantines, unlike in other parts of the country where staffing shortages also are widespread.

Recently, Katie Rodgers, a special education teacher at Oakland International High School, decided to take a leave day to visit her sister. Since she and her co-worker fill in for one another when they need time off, she wasn't worried about leaving her students.

“I didn't really take any days off last year," she said. “And this year I'm just like, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ So I took four days in October to go to a friend's wedding, and to take care of myself.”

Rodgers says this year, demands on teachers are more intense than ever.

“I think there's so much we're taking on, because so many kids just need so much from us that, like, we do, we have to step out sometimes,” she said.

The problem is there are so many fewer subs available.

Over at San Francisco Unified, before the pandemic, the pool of substitutes was over 500 people. Now it's down to about 200 regular subs, according to Nathalie Hrizi, who oversees substitutes for the United Educators of San Francisco, the teacher’s union.

In elementary school classes, Hrizi says, when a sub can’t be found, that class is split up and sent to other classrooms for the day.

“And so educators are really struggling with that and it's having an impact on our students themselves,” she said.

San Francisco substitute Erica Junghans works across the district in 25 different elementary schools. She is a full-time sub who, pre-pandemic, would start each week with a couple of assignments. This year, however, she’s booked solid all the way through to March.

A woman wearing glasses, a dark red jacket and grey shirt stand outside with a school in the background.
SFUSD substitute Erica Junghans in 2021. She said work dried up when schools moved to virtual learning last year, and many of her colleagues left to find other work. (Courtesy of Erica Junghans)

She says on a day when she was accidentally double-booked, the second school begged her to show up.

“They said, ‘Oh, please come, because we really need you’,” she recalled. “I was in the classroom for literally 40, 45 minutes and they still wanted me. They're desperate.”

Many Bay Area districts have increased sub pay up to $240 a day for some positions, but that hasn’t solved the shortage. When teachers began working from home during the pandemic last year, sub work dried up, Junghans said.

“There were no jobs, zero jobs. So I didn't get paid. So a lot of people gave up,” Junghans said, adding that her regular salary of $38,000 per year is not enough to afford to live in San Francisco, even under normal conditions.

Junghans said she became a sub after volunteering for two years at her daughter’s school. She thinks San Francisco could do more to encourage parents like her to step into the role. And she says a guarantee of stable, year-round pay would go a long way. As it stands, subs get paid a maximum of 180 days, the length of the school year.

UESF’s Hrizi says because of the low pay, there has always been a sub shortage. It has just reached epic proportions this year.

“I think we're seeing the same trend with substitute educators as we are with many other workers across the country, which is that given the conditions, the treatment, the challenges, the pay and the benefits and the working stability aren't sufficient to keep people coming to work,” she said.

Meanwhile, other districts are trying more aggressive tactics to recruit substitutes. In Marin, where the sub pool has plummeted from 545 in March of 2020 to 298 currently, the County Superintendent of Schools, Mary Jane Burke, says staff will be out at vaccine clinics handing out small cards with a QR code linking to district job openings.

“We are targeting Marin residents, and over-age 50 residents and talking about this as, ‘We are all in this together,’” Burke said.

A woman standing outside wearing a black mask, a cream colored sweater and a white shirt.
Senior Joanna Lam outside Lowell High on Dec. 7, 2021. She says rotating counselors have filled in as substitutes in her classes this year. (Courtesy of Adrianna Zhang)

For students who are trying to stay on track academically when their regular teachers are out, there is a bit of hope. Joanna Lam, a senior at Lowell High in San Francisco, said her teachers are coming up with ways to stay in touch if they can’t be in the classroom.

“Because of distance learning last year, a lot of us use online platforms like Google Classroom,” Lam said. “So the teacher will just say, ‘Hey, I'm out today, here's the work for the day,’ and so the sub is just kind of there to take attendance.”

That is, if there is a sub.