Waterford High School replacement Carl Malinowsky had always thought of teaching as a career path, but never pursued it.

Then, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the 25-year-old heard that several local school districts were hiring replacements and he thought it would be a good way to get his “foot in the door” at a school and to gain experience in education, since her previous experience was working with the elderly.

Now he works every day as a substitute, a job in which no two days are the same and flexibility is essential.

“You could go from ninth-grade health class to senior-grade English class to help cover lunch in the span of two hours,” he said.

He said the most rewarding part of the job is the ability to make a difference in students’ lives every day, while the biggest lesson he has learned is managing COVID-19 protocols as schools try to stay open during the pandemic. But he said the school offers plenty of personal protective equipment and administrators have done a great job of balancing COVID-19 fears with keeping children in school.

He had an easy rapport with pupils after class on Thursday at Waterford High School, as he asked a pupil in the library how his exam had gone, then caught up with two pupils in the hallway and asked them in joking what they were still doing there.

Substitutes like Malinowsky are in high demand, with many school districts across the region and nation facing a shortage of full-time staff as well as a shortage of substitutes to replace them.

Malinowsky, who lives in Montville, has a bachelor’s degree in social work, earns $125 a day as a building substitute, and loves her job. But he also understands the challenges of shortages facing school districts across the country and, overall, thinks a national effort should be made to increase the pay and benefits of substitute teachers.

“Staff shortages continue to be a national problem, which existed before the pandemic and has likely been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Eric Scoville, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

School districts in southeast Connecticut are experiencing a shortage of regular full-time and substitute teachers and are competing with other districts — and other industries — for a dwindling pool of applicants. Some people say it’s a rewarding time to be a substitute, but others have chosen not to participate due to work pressures, concerns about COVID-19, family responsibilities or better opportunities in others. areas, among other reasons.

In New London public schools, 20 to 40 vacancies go unfilled every day. Teachers should use their prep time to cover other classes or absorb additional students into their class — or both, said Robert A. Stacy, executive director of talent and human resources for the district. The administrators cover the courses almost daily.

Preston is seeing a shortage of replacements across the board. “We use students, retirees and paraeducators to cover the classrooms,” Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said.

June Froh, a retired teacher from Ledyard High School who started substitute teaching at Ledyard and Stonington in 2014, said that before the pandemic, finding a replacement assignment could sometimes be a challenge, as several people fought over each other. the same post. Now she could find a job every day, if she wanted.

She says she feels safe at school. A typical day involves taking attendance, making sure students complete their assignments, and managing student behavior, though she had few issues overall. She said that at one school, several students thanked her for her replacement and that staff members are grateful.

Shelley Freeman, 36, started working as a special education paraprofessional in 2016, then began filling in in 2017 to work the same schedule as her three children in the Ledyard School District. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Special Education.

Before the pandemic, she could sometimes go a week without a job, but now every day there is one available. She said she felt bad that she sometimes had to turn one down to focus on her studies or take care of her own children when they were sick.

Freeman said she was hesitant to take up the replacement during the pandemic because she worried about how she would handle COVID-19 mitigation strategies. But once she got back into the classroom, she got comfortable and “it just feels natural now.” She said the students have adapted well to the new school environment.

Freeman realizes that the pandemic has affected many children socio-emotionally and that it may change their behavior, so she tries to give students the opportunity to process any changes that are happening to them. She spent time in a special education class last year and said it was nice to give students a space where they could feel like school was what it always was.

What causes the shortages?

School districts face shortages when staff members test positive for the coronavirus, have been in close proximity to someone who tested positive, or need to care for a family member, among other reasons, Seitsinger said. An employee might also “choose to walk away” from their job as part of the big resignation, or because of stress or being overwhelmed in the moment.

The pool of replacements is also shrinking: “People are finding other jobs or aren’t interested in working in a school building right now,” East Lyme Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said.

Among the many factors, Stacy said, are people in an age and risk category who don’t think the extra income is worth it.

Connecticut Association of Boards of Education executive director Robert J. Rader said higher locum salaries and greater availability of at-home testing could help, but many people aren’t looking much for work in public education because it is so difficult. The pressures on staff, as well as students, during the pandemic have been difficult.

Wages in other industries have also risen to $15 an hour or more due to staffing shortages, said Laurie LePine, director of human resources for Groton Public Schools, which has experienced staffing shortages in 20-25% during the pandemic.

To be competitive, the Groton Board of Education approved wage increases, effective Jan. 1, for staff earning less than $15 an hour.

Raising wages, stepping up recruitment

Substitute teacher salaries vary by district, from $105 to $150 per day, or more for substitute teachers who take on additional responsibilities.

Preston paid surrogates $85 a day before the pandemic, but surrogates now earn between $120 and $150 a day, with long-term surrogates earning $150 and becoming eligible for health benefits after a period, Seitsinger said.

In the Stonington School District, which recently increased substitute pay to $125 and is proposing increases for paraprofessionals in next year’s budget, Superintendent Van Riley announced that any staff member who refers someone as substitute or paraprofessional teacher will receive a referral payment of $500 if that person is hired, starting Monday.

School board member Dan Kelley, who worked as a substitute, suggested raising the substitute salary to $150 a day.

Riley also told the board that a free way to retain employees is to praise and encourage them during a difficult time.

The New London School District worked with Kelly Education, which has a contract with the district to provide substitutes, to increase the daily rate of pay for substitutes, Stacy said. Each school is also staffed with three to five “hybrid substitute teachers,” who are district employees who work every day and earn $180 a day.

But the district is still struggling to fill positions.

“We compete with surrounding districts for the same pool of candidates,” Stacy said. “Some districts have increased their daily rate to what we consider to be unsustainable levels.”

With a shortage of daily substitutes, the Montville School District has focused on hiring more permanent substitutes, who are guaranteed to work every day and whose pay ranges from $110 to $150 a day, depending on their qualifications, Superintendent Laurie Pallin said. Substitutes who also plan lessons and mark homework are paid $260 per day.

Montville reached an agreement with the teachers’ union this year to pay teachers $60 to teach an extra block to cover an absent teacher, she added.

The Groton School District networks with retirees to encourage them to return to work and recruits students to work during school vacations and in the spring, when it’s usually harder to find replacements, according to LePine.

Norwich has taken on additional teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries as floats to fill in as needed in the district, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said.

The Lyme-Old Lyme District, however, is not experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers or paraprofessionals, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said.

Neviaser said substitute teachers received $120 a day after the rate was increased in December due to a shortage at the time. Substitute paraeducators receive $16.01 per hour under the most recent contract, approved in July. The district has also employed an “aggressive” print advertising strategy and benefits from recent college graduates who have returned to the area and are available as replacements early in their careers.

A bachelor’s degree, along with a criminal background check with fingerprints and a Connecticut Department of Children and Families background check, are required by state regulations to become a surrogate, LePine said.

The Ministry of Education has provided more flexibility in locum requirements in response to shortages, including making it easier for people without a bachelor’s degree to become locums. The agency issued 67% more replacement clearances for people without a bachelor’s degree in the first half of this school year compared to the entire pre-pandemic school year of 2018-2019, Scoville said.

Day staff writers Claire Bessette, Elizabeth Regan, Greg Smith, Johana Vazquez and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

[email protected]