Substitute shortage puts strain on Naperville North staff

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Photo by Faith Kwong

The schedule of communication arts teachers shows few gaps for substituting.

Grace Aigner and Faith Kwong

A shortage of substitute teachers at Naperville North is causing a strain on staff members and teachers, who must give up free periods to substitute. 

The lack of substitutes is a relatively new problem. It presented itself as a substantial issue this school year, the first fully in-person one since the COVID-19 pandemic. While the exact number of unfilled substitute positions ranges from day to day, the unfilled periods are far more common this year than in years past. 

NNHS Administrative Assistant Rita Rothmund noted how drastic the change has been in comparison to pre-pandemic years.

“I’ve had more days with unfilled jobs in the two and a half months [of the school year so far] than I did in the previous years,” Rothmund said.

North isn’t the only school with this dilemma in the midst of the pandemic. According to a 2020 study conducted by The Illinois Association of the Regional Superintendents of Schools, (IARSS) superintendents 496 of 591 of responding districts reported using an existing teacher during their prep time as a strategy to deal with a substitute shortage. 

This shortage has also placed more pressure on substitute teachers themselves, who may have to run around the building to fill in for classes. In the case that a designated substitute teacher is not signed up for a class, administrative assistants turn to teachers, who must give up their lunch breaks or free periods meant for lesson planning to substitute for a class within the department. NNHS Mathematics Department Chair Howard Phelan said that this cycle has taken over teachers’ work time and added up to an even busier schedule.

“That’s usually the time that they’re spending grading papers, preparing a lesson for the next period or next day. So they lose that time and they’ve got to make that up otherwise now at home or elsewhere,” Phelan said.

Naperville North Science Department Chair Andrew McWhirter said that without an increase in available substitutes, the current situation cannot continue for the duration of the school year.

“Cycling through teachers is not going to be sustainable,” McWhirter said.

Teachers aren’t the only ones feeling the stress of the low substitute situation. Administrative assistants are on the front lines of dealing with teacher absences and finding substitutes. Gillian Climo, the administrative assistant for the math and science departments at North, noticed that arranging substitute accommodations each morning has become a harder problem to solve this year.

“In the morning, the department secretaries talk to each other, figuring out how to fill in the puzzle, trying to utilize subs in the building first, and then if we can’t use those, we go to teachers and see if they can sub,” Climo said.

This problem has not gone ignored by head administrators at Naperville North. In a Huskie Howler email sent out on Oct. 25, NNHS Principal Stephanie Posey asked parents with a bachelor’s degree to consider applying for a substitute position, and noted the school’s dire need for more substitute teachers.

We are in desperate need of substitute teachers and would welcome any assistance you can provide,” the email said.

A few days after the email was sent out, Naperville School District 203 tweeted an announcement offering a 100 dollar incentive for every 10 days taught for substitute teachers. Although the district, and North specifically, has made efforts to encourage an influx of substitute teachers, it is not a guarantee that more people will apply. 

In addition to teachers and administrative assistants, the crisis has affected student learning. If neither a substitute teacher nor another staff member can fill in for a class, some classes must sit in another classroom during their class period, which can result in confusion and loss of instruction. After sitting with her Business Incubator class unsupervised for half a period on an October morning, Sophomore Julien Song found out from another CTE teacher that her entire class was supposed to go to another classroom. The confused class entered the classroom, before being asked to sit on the ground as the teacher taught a different subject. 

“The class period definitely would’ve been more productive if there was a sub,” Song said. 

With flu season beginning, substitute teachers will be in higher demand. Climo says that without more substitutes, the strain on teachers in staff is only going to worsen.

“If it continues, and it’s the start of allergies and flu season which is not bad yet, but as we get into it and it gets worse, the situation is not sustainable,” Climo said.

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