In anticipation of a potential substitute teacher shortage as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the state of Missouri is temporarily making it easier for people to qualify for substitute positions in public school districts.

The State Board of Education has approved an alternate route for individuals to obtain a substitute certificate. Currently, subs must complete 60 semester hours or more of college-level credit. With the new route, individuals with a high school diploma or equivalent may complete a 20-hour, state-approved online training course to be eligible for a substitute certificate.

The training course includes topics such as professionalism, diversity, classroom management techniques, basic instructional strategies and support for at-risk students or students with special needs, according to an announcement from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"Many teachers and school administrators have expressed concern about the potential shortage of substitute teachers during the 2020-21 school year due to COVID-19," said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner for the Office of Educator Quality. "With already a declining number of candidates entering the education profession, this option will help Missouri school districts and charter schools develop a deeper pool of substitute teachers both in the short and long term."

The state also is temporarily waiving portions of a state statute that limit the number of hours worked and the salary earned by retirees while working in a temporary or substitute position, according to the Public School Retirement System of Missouri and the Public Education Employee Retirement System of Missouri.

Retirees receiving benefits from either of the two systems generally are subject to limits on their work, with benefits stopping if they exceed those limits. But those limits are being relaxed because "substitute teacher shortages were a growing concern in the education community prior to COVID-19, and school leaders anticipate finding qualified, experienced teachers and/or staff to fill the necessary gaps during the pandemic will be even more of a challenge," officials with the systems said in a statement.

Shortage of substitute teachers

School districts β€” both regionally and nationally β€” have long been concerned with a shortage of substitute teachers.

State affiliates of the National Education Association for years have reported that substitute teachers are difficult to recruit because of factors such as low pay, competition in the job market and the exclusion of subs from collective bargaining units.

"The increased demand on the existing substitute teacher pool is due in part to higher requirements for in-service training for permanent teachers and generous teacher contracts that offer additional leave time during the school year," said Geoffrey G. Smith, an executive director of the Substitute Teacher Training Institute at Utah State University, in an essay for the School Superintendents Association. "The decline in quantity and quality of substitute teachers is largely a result of today's competitive job market where there are many alternative employment opportunities for potential substitutes. Plus, the growing trend of smaller size classes has reduced the number of certified teachers in the substitute pool."

Joplin Superintendent Melinda Moss said she is "thrilled" at both plans to allow more people into the classroom as substitute teachers.

The Joplin School District has a few more subs in its pool this year than it did at this time last year, and Moss attributes that to the district having been "pretty aggressive" in recruitment.

But administrators are still concerned that their substitute pool could be easily exhausted once school starts. During a normal school year when there aren't enough substitute teachers to cover classrooms, students often join other classes for the day β€” something that won't be allowed this year, when social distancing and strict separation of cohorts will be enforced to aid with contact tracing, Moss said.

"We know that we cannot do those same things," she said. "Having a robust substitute pool is even more important to us this year because of COVID."

For more information about substitute teaching in Joplin, call the district at 417-625-5200 or go to joplinschools.org.

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.