Marysville Getchell High School. (Marysville School District)

Marysville Getchell High School. (Marysville School District)

With a labor shortage, schools scrounge for substitutes

Looking for a career change? Schools in Snohomish County are emergency-certifying substitute teachers and paraeducators.

MUKILTEO — Amid a labor shortage and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, school districts are desperate for classroom support.

It’s an issue that’s causing them to compete for a shrinking pool of substitute teachers, paraeducators, bus drivers and food service workers. The Marysville and Mukilteo school districts recently announced they’re seeking people with associate and bachelor’s degrees to start immediately, and will help applicants get emergency certifications.

“We always have replacement positions needed throughout the year for maternity leave, medical leave, all different reasons,” said Debbie Greenlund, a human resources technician for the Mukilteo School District. “But this year it just seems to be an extraordinary number of leaves for the school year.”

It means the district is hiring a large number of short-term positions.

“We just have a lot going on and need extra support,” Greenlund said. “On the paraeducator side, we just don’t have enough applicants to fill all the positions we have.”

State lawmakers are considering legislation meant to encourage retired public employees to fill some of the vacant roles. HB 1699 would temporarily allow certain retirees to take non-administrative jobs at school districts, without their employment affecting pension benefits.

“The real problem this is trying to solve is the significant substitute shortage we are having in our schools right now,” Rep. Steve Bergquist said at a recent hearing. “… We have a huge shortage on our hands, both in certificated and classified positions.”

Alejandro Vergara, executive director of Human Resources for the Marysville School District, emailed The Daily Herald that the district is attempting to recruit applicants for its vacant positions.

“Over the past couple of years, we have seen an increase in retirements and a decrease in applicants as people made choices to not rejoin the workforce for various reasons,” Vergara wrote. “… We are now focused on filling open positions on a more permanent basis whether in a regular or substitute position.”

Brynn Kaas, a substitute teacher for the Mukilteo School District, applied for the job last fall. She works full time at a church but has considered switching careers to become a teacher for the past several years.

“What a perfect time to help the district, but also test the waters to see if that’s something I ever want to do,” Kaas said.

Justin Fox-Bailey, president of the Snohomish Education Association, said it’s difficult to attribute why schools are struggling to hire to any one factor. It’s been a long two years, though, Bailey said. People are tired.

“We’ve had a lot of folks retire, resign or take leave,” Fox-Bailey said. “More than normal, because the last couple years have been so difficult. People are re-evaluating their lives and saying, ‘Maybe I don’t want to finish my career under these terms.’”

Fox-Bailey added that the emergency substitute certification isn’t new, and he’s seen smaller school districts use them for the past few years. He hasn’t seen districts use them to this extent, though.

Kaas started teaching about a month after the district hired her. She completed most of the training and paperwork on her own and at her own pace. She described it as “very manageable.”

She can now see the available substitute jobs online for every school in the district. Kaas picks the ones she wants and sets her own schedule. It’s a new practice for the district, Greenlund said, and the result of an overwhelming need for staff. Substitute paraeducators have the same flexibility.

Kaas, a Mukilteo graduate, recently filled in for her former band director.

“It’s extremely fulfilling to be able to help your community,” Kaas said. “I’m getting experience, I’m exploring new options, but at the end of the day the staff at the school is just overjoyed that you’re there, because they’re just so grateful for the subs. It’s very rewarding to help, even in a small capacity.”

School districts can request an emergency substitute certification for applicants if the districts are struggling to hire enough teachers. The certification lasts two years. The Mukilteo and Marysville School Districts only require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree. The Mukilteo School District pays substitute teachers $200 per day Monday through Thursday, and $250 on Fridays.

The paraeducator positions require an associate degree or a certain number of college credits. People can use the online ParaPro Assessment tool to see if they qualify. The Mukilteo School District pays substitute paraeducators $20.53 per hour. The district pays conditional and permanent paraeducators at least $22.53 per hour, but increases the pay based on experience.

The districts are also hiring bus drivers and other staff. The Mukilteo School District pays substitute bus drivers $29.49 per hour, and $32.14 per hour if they’re hired as permanent employees. The district trains bus drivers over several weeks and pays for the required tests.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Rep. Steve Bergquist’s last name.

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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