In a school year already fraught with COVID concerns, Fargo-Moorhead area school districts say they face a growing need for more part-time educators to help carry the load.

“We really have been in a pinch for substitute teachers and paraprofessionals,” said Robin Hill, the director of human resources for West Fargo Public Schools.

Hill says the West Fargo district has been growing by “leaps and bounds” every year, adding 75 to 100 professional staff each year, most of whom would require someone to fill in if they need to be absent. But this year, the fill-in pool is low.

“The demand (for substitutes) is a very steep line, and the supply has just pretty much remained level,” she said.

Independence Elementary first grade teacher Sydney Bailey speaks to her students on the first day of school in West Fargo on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. David Samson / The Forum
Independence Elementary first grade teacher Sydney Bailey speaks to her students on the first day of school in West Fargo on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. David Samson / The Forum

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Hill says the supply/demand imbalance has “been causing a lot of difficulty” for them for several years, but the pandemic is just exacerbating the problem. Older, retired teachers make up a healthy portion of the substitute pool in the region, and they have shown some reluctance to teach during the pandemic because they are in a higher risk group. Hill says she’s spoken to retirees who say they’d love to help but feel like they just need to “wait it out".

“The thing about substituting, at least on a day-call basis, is you're going to be somewhere different with somebody different every day. And it makes it even harder,” Hill said. “As you assess your risk in this situation we're in, and you think about ‘Jeepers, I'm going to be in five different school rooms..." Now, over the course of a week, that could cause some people to hesitate.”

At the same time, Hill says she’s seen some older substitutes feeling comfortable, while it’s the younger substitutes wanting to stay away during COVID.

Across the Red River in Moorhead, the district is also seeing fewer substitutes than pre-COVID years.

Third-grade students listen to their teacher, Mrs. Rheault, read a book to them on their first day of class on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at S.G. Reinertsen Elementary School in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
Third-grade students listen to their teacher, Mrs. Rheault, read a book to them on their first day of class on Tuesday, Sept. 8, at S.G. Reinertsen Elementary School in Moorhead. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum

“There is a great need for substitutes due to the ongoing pandemic,” said Kristin Dehmer, executive director of Human Resources and Operations for Moorhead Area Public Schools. “ With Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead consistently adding staff to meet enrollment needs, we have less subs to provide support because many are in teaching positions.”

Doug Andring, director of human resources for Fargo Public Schools, says he hasn’t seen a big increase in the number of subs needed this year from last, but it’s been a little more challenging to manage the extra absences that come when someone tests positive for COVID-19.

“Or perhaps they even have to stay home because their child is home because they've been quarantined, or perhaps they’ve lost daycare because of COVID. So, we've worked through those situations,” Andring said.

The districts say working through those absences includes calling substitutes to come in for either day subbing or long-term subbing.

Hill says looking back at absences for the week of September 14, they were seeking anywhere from 80 to 125 substitutes every day.

“So we’re getting up there. It’s still somewhat comparable to years past; however, our demand hasn’t peaked yet,” Hill said.

Substitutes are needed at all levels of K -12 education, but Andring says they’re seeing a slightly higher need for people to fill in at the elementary level. More elementary schools across the metro are holding in-person classes, versus upper-level grades doing more distance learning.

Roosevelt Elementary teachers helping students maintain social distancing guidelines while boarding the school bus on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
Roosevelt Elementary teachers helping students maintain social distancing guidelines while boarding the school bus on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

When outside substitute teachers cannot be found, the districts come up with more creative solutions, including relying on “in-house” subbing, where teachers within the building could be reassigned for the day or take on additional duties.

“We have provided a minimum of two standing subs per building for 2020-21. Additionally, we have created a schedule that allows for contracted teachers to sub where needed, Dehmer said. “ Normally, when a sub cannot be found, we may pull a licensed teacher from another area during their prep time or combine classes in a normal year. 2020-21 is a different year, so the strategies are different.”

Andring says while they haven’t seen a “massive upswing” in the number of days when substitute teachers can’t be found, the need has been pretty consistent to find paraprofessionals or paraeducators — those individuals who help teachers in special education and regular education classrooms.

“We continue to have a challenge filling paraeducator subs. And that's no different over the last two, three years to this current year, even with COVID,” Andring said.

The districts aren’t quite pushing the panic button with the substitute situation yet. They paint it as a nagging issue, where they continually stay in the “critical mass” zone. They say they’re holding their own — for now.

“I don't think I would classify it as a crisis,” Andring said. “I certainly do see trends in our ability to not fill teacher subs that, if it would continue on over the weeks or maybe months, it could become a crisis.”

Tomorrow on Inforum:

The districts say some people might not realize they could qualify to be a substitute teacher. What are the requirements in North Dakota and Minnesota? And we’ll introduce you to a substitute teacher in Moorhead who left the army after 32 years and six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan to become a long-term substitute teacher.