Missouri schools continue to struggle with having enough teachers available to educate students in traditional classrooms this year. The Show-Me State has had a chronic problem with teacher shortages, but COVID-19 has made that can of worms open even more.

Missouri education official calls substitute teacher shortage a crisis

Many of the state’s 70,000 pre-k through 12 teachers are going above and beyond this year to reach their students in the classroom and at home. Some schools have been forced to move to online learning if they lack enough educators. Teachers are giving up their planning time to pitch in and help in other parts of their school. Students are sometimes getting shuffled into other classrooms because their teacher is absent.

According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) website, about 81,000 students are currently getting in-seat instruction. About 139,000 are learning online only. Another 658,000 are doing a combination of the two. None of Missouri’s roughly 551 school districts and charter schools are closed due to COVID-19.

In September, DESE launched an online training program that can fast track candidates to become K-12 substitute teachers. The temporary effort is meant to help fill the gaps in teacher shortages during the pandemic.

More than 2,700 Missourians have enrolled in the program so far and about 700 are currently subbing. Dr. Paul Katnik is the assistant commissioner of the Office of Educator Quality at DESE. During a state Board of Education meeting today, Katnik says people in every region of the state have signed up.

“We started the entire program on September 2. We were issuing our first certificate on September 9,” he says. “People can get this done in a week if they’ve got everything turned in and they get their training done right away. I can tell you there’s other people that haven’t moved along quite that quickly.”

Despite the volume of participation, the need for more subs still exists. Just ask Missouri Board of Education member Mary Schrag of southern Missouri’s West Plains.

“I just think we’re just really struggling still to get subs in these very small towns where we have really limited numbers of individuals who would probably be able to sub and be successful,” she says. “I think in the more urban areas, they are more populous. There’s just more people to tap into in the first place.”

Substitute teacher certifications have also taken a plunge since March. The range has been anywhere from 16% to 72% compared to last year. Certifications began to turn the corner a bit last month but Katnik says the substitute teacher shortage is still very real.

“It was a problem before the pandemic. It’s certainly a crisis now,” he says.

Katnik says the rate at which schools are not filling substitute teacher jobs has, in turn, grown during the pandemic.

“The typical fill rates for substitutes are upwards of 80% in a normal year. Meaning if I need ten subs, I usually get eight out of the ten,” says Katnik. “But we’re hearing fill rates now being 50% and less, which means I can’t even fill half.”

The cost for the full set of substitute training courses required to meet certification is $175. The online program is available on the Missouri Department Elementary and Secondary Education’s website.

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