Kenai Peninsula schools face substitute teacher shortage

An empty hallway at a Kenai Peninsula Borough School (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is short on subs.

As a result, staff, teachers and existing substitutes are straining to work more than they want to.

“We absolutely have to build up our substitute pool,” said Anne McCabe, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, at the Sept. 14 school board meeting. “We have many employees who are in a heightened state of work because they know they can’t take time off. There is no one there to sub for them.”

RELATED: ‘It has exceeded my expectations’: Here’s what in-person school looks like in Mat-Su

“We have a lot of secretaries who are really running our schools who say to me, ‘Anne, I can’t take a day off. There’s just nobody,’” she added. “I had scheduled a building rep training this past Friday, and over and over again, I got messages from our members from across the district who said, ‘Anne, I wanna go, we have no subs.’ ‘Anne, I wanted to attend, we have no subs.’”

Other school districts across Alaska and the country are facing similar shortages. Those in the borough are in part due to more teachers and staff taking days away from school, said Pegge Erkeneff, KPBSD director of communications.

“We’ve got at any given time maybe 20 percent of our staff that are out, and that was the estimate we heard this summer as we were planning for the reopening of schools,” Erkeneff said.

Teachers and staff who are close contacts of cases might need to quarantine, or they may be immunocompromised or live with someone who is. 

“The other thing that happened that is really part of this, too, is we put in place a symptom-free school protocol, which means for anybody, if you’ve got a cold, you’ve got a cough, you’ve got a fever, you’ve got a headache, you don’t come to work and you don’t come to school,” she said.

Substitute teachers themselves may be undergoing similar constraints, so the existing substitute pool is smaller to begin with.

A lot of substitutes are also retired teachers, who tend to be older and more at risk of contracting a serious iteration of the disease.

Dan Hill is a retired teacher and administrator. He’s been substitute teaching for around 20 years and is currently stationed in Nikiski.

“I’m trying to actually retire a little bit, so seeing as I am teaching qualified as well as administratively qualified — and there’s even a bigger shortage of administrative-qualified subs in the school district,” Hill said. “So I’ve been trying to concentrate just mainly on four schools.”

He’s now trying to cut back on his hours and work around half time. But that’s easier said than done.

“The way it works out, I have a hard time saying no,” he said.

Hill wasn’t sure he was going to substitute teach this year. Then, he saw that there was a lot of need and decided to step up. He said he’s not particularly worried about COVID-19

“I look at my role not so much that I need the money or that I have to have the money for that part of the deal,” Hill said, “I look at it really as being able to be supportive to the teachers, administrators and the students in this school district. So for me, it’s more a calling or a mission than it is an actual job.”

To attract more applicants for open substitute positions, the school board raised wages for substitute teachers and staff this summer. Certified teachers can make $150 in an eight-hour work day. Substitute custodians and cooks can make $13 per hour.

“We are looking for substitutes in all areas right now. And we have something new in place, as well,” Erkeneff said. “There’s paperwork to complete online and a background check. And then for training, it’s actually on-the-job training where you shadow somebody in the position that you would be substituting for and you get paid to do that for a day, so you can really learn the job.”

Both Hill and Erkeneff said they see subbing as a way to help the district out.

“We need our community to step up,” Erkeneff said.