School districts in Kern County are working to lure substitute teachers with higher pay and bonuses during a year with a shallow pool of teachers and historic demand.
Over the course of the pandemic, Kern County's already small pool of K-12 substitutes was just about halved. In September 2019, there were 2,026 substitute teachers countywide, according to Kern County Superintendent of Schools spokesman Robert Meszaros. As of Aug. 13, it was 1,105.
It quickly became clear that wasn't going to cut it with this latest surge of COVID cases coinciding with the beginning of the school year.
This isn't just a problem in Kern County. The state has been relaxing requirements to be a substitute teacher. To ease the shortage, retired teachers can begin to substitute immediately and the California Basic Educational Skills Test is no longer a requirement.
Waiving the CBEST in lieu of coursework or a combination of coursework and exams has allowed many more substitutes to make it onto the county list. The department conducted more than 400 transcript reviews in the past month. The county list had grown to 1,456 substitutes as of Thursday.
Once substitutes make it onto the county list, they are faced with the question of which district — or districts — are places where they want to substitute.
The basement in Kern County is $100 for a day's work. Rates tend to higher as students get older or for assignments focused on students with disabilities. High schools tend to pay by the hour or period. Retired educators also tend to be paid more.
People who substitute teach often say they aren't doing it solely for the money. It's not easy to live off the daily rates alone.
Joel Hoffman retired early from the oil industry, and he has worked as a substitute at Elk Hills School District and Pond Union School District for the past few years.
Hoffman knows that many substitutes worried about COVID, but he felt comfortable with his own health and the strict precautions the districts took throughout the pandemic, so he stepped up to pitch in. It's not his main source of income, but some of the districts that call him still don't offer quite enough to make it worth the drive from Bakersfield.
"I’m willing to help, but if you’re going to have me drive 40 miles one way, you have to make it worth my time," he laughed.
Since school began, districts are approving increases, though many of them are temporary for the school year.
Historically, the Kern High School District has had some of the highest rates in the county. At its Sept. 7 meeting, it temporarily upped its rates from $27 to $46 per hour to $35 to $54 an hour, according to spokeswoman Erin-Briscoe-Clarke.
The Bakersfield City School District approved a big increase. All its assignments will pay $215 per day. It also approved a $500 bonus for every 30 days worked, which is retroactive to the beginning of the school year.
Previously, the district paid $130 to $165 per day for its assignments. That's where the rates will automatically return next school year without action.
Panama-Buena Vista Union School District raised its rates for substitute teachers on Tuesday, noting that BCSD was expected to do the same thing that night. The board approved an increase from $115 to $125 per day to $135 to $170 per day.
Trustee Keith Wolaridge worried the district was getting into a "price war" with neighboring districts and that raising substitute rates wouldn't be "sustainable" for the long-term.
"We're raising the floor and we get into the pricing floor among districts and we all lose," he said.
Darryl Johnson, assistant superintendent of human resources for PBVUSD, pointed out the substitute rate increases were temporary and would revert to previous rates at the year's end. The last time the district raised rates was in 2016-17.
Johnson noted the district was having trouble holding onto subs. It started the year with 255 subs, but over the last month it had fewer than 100 active substitute teachers. He said it didn't need to match other districts, but it needed to get closer to attract new hires.
Without substitute teachers, schools have found themselves calling certificated staffers into the classroom or dividing up classes among other teachers, meaning some classes will have 35 students.
The staffing shortage in Kernville Union School District became so dire that two schools were shut down for two days and switched to distance learning.
Superintendent Steven Martinez said that it's always been difficult for rural school districts to find substitute teachers. They often pay a premium for those willing to make the drive. Kernville Union hasn't hiked its rates, but it currently pays $160 per day for certificated substitutes and $200 per day for long-term certificated substitutes.
Martinez believes the district will be dealing with staffing shortages "for the foreseeable future."
Delano Union School District has tried to address this issue by hiring on 12 long-term substitute teachers into salaried positions for the school year.
"These subs provide a way to offer consistent instruction," said April Gregerson, assistant superintendent for instructional programs.
There are some downsides to working as a substitute in the middle of pandemic, according to Jack Holmes, a substitute in KHSD. Holmes said he's found that some teachers and some schools aren't very good about enforcing the mask mandate in their classrooms. It can be frustrating having to repeatedly tell students to put on their mask.
"I’m vaccinated, so if I get the virus, it’s not going to kill me, but I still see 2,000 students a week," he said. "It’s not like a teacher who has the same students everyday. I have the potential to spread this all over."
But there are some real upsides to working in the middle of a historic shortage.
"It’s actually a good time to be a sub, because you can pick where you want to work when you want to work," he said.
Last time he looked there were two pages of jobs available. Right now he's booked out until November.