COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a struggle even before the pandemic hit, but now, finding someone to sub in when a teacher is out sick is even harder for Ohio schools.
The authorization of an advanced version of a Republican-led house bill could alleviate some of that pressure. Although not everyone is satisfied, the need for some relief is bipartisan.
School districts started offering more money, and Ohio lawmakers stepped in to help by creating a bigger pool of possible substitute teachers. House Bill 583 would keep that bigger pool open for longer.
Educators have had it hard during the pandemic, and they say they are being overworked. Nearly 80% of schools across the country are having issues with recruiting teachers, according to a study done by the Education Week Research Center.
"Substitute teachers have always been a challenge, but it was a challenge before the pandemic and it continues to be a challenge throughout the pandemic," David Brand, superintendent of North Olmsted City School District (NOCS) said.
Brand and his faculty struggle with staffing shortages every day, he said.
"We have the principals, administrators who are teaching throughout the week and days," he said. "We have teachers giving up their lunches and other times to be able to teach and cover classrooms to make sure our kids are taken care of and they're educated every day."
HB 583 is aiming to fix that — and it has his support.
Republican-led with bipartisan backing, the bill would allow local school boards to hire substitutes who don’t have college degrees. This, as long as they meet the school’s educational requirements, pass a criminal background check, and are of “good moral character.”
"It means whatever you as a local board of education, decide it means," bill sponsor Rep. Adam Bird, a Republican from New Richmond, said when asked about what makes someone have a good moral character. "I think it's important that we give local control, local power. They know their community standards, they know the people in their community better than I do. We want to give power and authority as much as we possibly can to local boards of education."
Before the pandemic began, subs would typically have to have a post-secondary or Bachelor's degree. Lawmakers had relaxed the rules due to COVID-19, but it was supposed to be a temporary solution aimed at the pandemic.
The legislation would provide critical support and resources to Ohio schools and allow students to attend classes for the entirety of the upcoming school year without disruption, Bird said.
The bill also appropriates $338 million of federal funds for the National School Lunch Program.
"This would provide an extension for that, a two-year extension for that," the lawmaker said. "We're just trying to give local school districts the flexibility to do what they think is in their best interest to keep learning going and keep kids in school."
Brand loves this bill, noting that he has a personal connection with it.
"I went to undergraduate school in Michigan and it was similar there, so I was able to substitute teach while going to undergrad to become a teacher," the educator said. "So that gave great opportunities for me as a young person trying to become a teacher — but it also helped the district.
"We've seen that here, too."
Bird, a former school superintendent, agreed with Brand and said issues with substitute teachers have only been exacerbated in the past few years.
The bill was voted on in the House and passed 80-10, as the bill is not without criticism.
Ohio Federation of Teachers' President Melissa Cropper wishes there were more strict guidelines, such as some college background or some experience supervising children. However, she knows there is a crisis.
"It really allows for almost anybody to become a substitute teacher, which in some ways is a huge problem for us because you do need skills, you do need some background knowledge, et cetera, in order to really cover a classroom when a teacher is out," Cropper said. "So that's a problem for us that we're not setting high standards on who becomes substitutes in the classroom. At the same time, we recognize that we're in a really horrible situation right now where our teachers who are there every day are being asked to take on additional responsibilities, and that's just making their jobs even harder."
The key here is for this to be a temporary solution, she said. It should never go past two years from now, she added.
"This is making a horrible situation a little bit less horrible, but in a way that has the potential to be really dangerous in the long term," she said. "The way the bill stands now is pretty much anyone 18 years or older could come to the classroom. I think there needs to be some age restrictions around that."
Bird wouldn't want that either, he said.
"It allows a local board of education to decide, and I would never agree that that's the best to have a 19-year-old high school grad as a substitute teacher," the representative said. "But in all reality, how this will play out is that 35-year-old soccer mom whose youngest child is now in school as a kindergartner, it allows a local board to say, 'you know, I know that soccer mom, she's coaches the soccer team.
"Or this other man, he's a baseball coach in and around kids, and we can use him on a day by day basis.'"
He continues on to say the substitutes could be Sunday school teachers, teach vacation Bible school, or other members of the community like honorably discharged veterans.
"That doesn't mean that they're going to be writing lesson plans," he said. "They're just there to keep things going for that day."
Cropper was worried about that.
"It's being treated now like we are hiring babysitters instead of substitute teachers," she said. "And that's the danger of this bill — we don't want long term for people to think that we just need a warm body to babysit the kids during the day. We need people in the classroom who can actually carry on the learning or maintain some degree of learning whenever a teacher is not in the classroom."
Someone trusted to watch over the students is better than no class at all, Bird said. However, he did hear the concerns and he added an amendment to the bill that would create a study committee to address the root of the shortage of substitute teachers.
"There are things perhaps that we can do in Ohio that would attract more substitute teachers to the profession," he said.
There are some ideas that both Bird and Cropper shared, though: treating substitute teachers with respect, paying them fairly and encouraging more people to get into the industry.
"I think it is a great way for us to help repair and better prepare people to move into education and help the district at the same time," Brand said. "It's a very rewarding profession and so I would encourage anybody to look into it and help make a difference in the lives of kids."
The bill is currently being heard in the Senate's Primary and Secondary Education Committee. While it flew through the House, the Senate needs to move it even faster for it to pass. Gov. Mike DeWine will need to sign the bill before mid-May for it to go into effect for the upcoming school year.