Staffing and student absences related to COVID-19 have forced schools to close across Oregon. One often-touted solution to keeping schools open for in-person learning has been bringing on board more substitute teachers, to fill in for teachers who are out sick or in quarantine.
It was absences that first prompted Oregon’s initial COVID-19 schools’ shut down in March 2020, with concerns about staffing levels driving Gov. Kate Brown’s decisions.
Oregon is in a different place now than it was two years ago, between vaccinations, long-time experience with distance learning, and a broader opportunity to help out in schools.
To expand the hiring pool, Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission created a new emergency substitute teaching license, allowing anyone 18 or over and “of good moral character” to qualify as a sub — no degree required — if they have sponsorship from a district or charter school.
Districts are also offering incentives, including bonuses, to substitute teachers who stick around or pick up a certain number of assignments a month.
But some Portland Public Schools parents and staff say they know of qualified candidates that did not get hired, even as 11 of 81 Portland schools closed this month due to COVID-19 related staff and student absences.
In Portland, ‘parents lining up to apply’
Isis Ilias heard about an opening for a Spanish substitute teaching position at Roosevelt High School in October.
She reached out to Paula Dennis, a longtime PPS teacher who has known Ilias since she was a kid. Dennis is currently a 5th-grade teacher at Vernon K-8 in Northeast Portland.
“[Ilias] and my daughter went to kindergarten together,” Dennis said.
Ilias is a PPS parent and graduate, with a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She’s also worked in classrooms before, including as a family liaison in the Umatilla School District.
“I thought it would be really powerful for her to be able to teach, and for the students there at Roosevelt to see a brown woman teaching,” Dennis said. “I thought that would just be the cream of the crop.”
Around the same time Dennis heard from Ilias, she saw a message go out from the district seeking employees.
“They needed [paraeducators], they needed educational assistants, they needed substitutes, they needed teachers, occupational therapists, nurses — you name it, they needed it,” Dennis said.
PPS typically has over 900 substitute teachers in a “non-COVID-year.” But this year — with heightened demand — the state’s largest district has fewer than usual — only 761, including 260 new substitutes hired just this year. 91 of those new subs have been hired as “emergency substitute teachers.”
After an interview with the district, Ilias got an email. It wasn’t a job offer. PPS said it received a “higher volume of applications than anticipated” and they weren’t moving forward with her.
“There’s so many things that I offer…this process makes them miss out on people like me,” Ilias said. “I want to work with kiddos in the school district, maybe I can make a difference.”
Dennis said she was “devastated and not surprised” that Ilias wasn’t hired as a sub. In the email to Ilias, the district’s substitute office suggested she apply for an educational assistant position.
Sharon Reese, the district’s chief human resources officer, said PPS can’t share why a candidate was or was not selected for a job.
“We know that every applicant wants to do their part to support our students and offer their expertise during this difficult time,” Reese wrote in an email to OPB. “We deeply appreciate anyone who takes the time to apply for these roles. As with any employment opportunity, we are unfortunately not able to offer emergency teaching licenses to every candidate who applies.”
This year, the district said they’ve had more than 500 people apply for substitute teaching positions. And they’ve hired 260 of them.
“PPS is grateful to the hundreds of community members who have stepped up and applied for the new emergency substitute teacher license,” Reese said.
Openings remain for substitutes, paraeducators, and school secretaries, Reese said.
When PPS parent Alisa Welch heard about the closures this month, she disagreed with the district’s reasoning that staffing was part of the reason.
“It’s like no, no, no, you have parents lining up to keep these schools open,” Welch said.
Like Ilias, Welch also applied to be a substitute teacher. Welch doesn’t have a teaching degree either, but she volunteers at her children’s school, Metropolitan Learning Center, a PPS alternative school for students in K-12. She has worked with elementary, middle school, and college students.
She said her interviewer, a former principal, didn’t have her resume. After the interview, again like Ilias, Welch received an email that there were a lot of applicants, and they weren’t moving forward with her.
“I just took it personally, they didn’t like me, they didn’t want parents in the building,” Welch said. “I didn’t have a good reason.”
She reached back out again when schools closed.
“I’m extremely concerned that more and more PPS schools will close for in-person learning because of the lack of teachers and at the same time confused why highly qualified applicants are being denied the opportunity to step up and step in as substitute teachers,” Welch wrote in her January email to the district’s substitute office.
The office responded that a lot of factors go into hiring and that they “stand by the decision.”
“Candidates are moved forward based on meeting minimum qualifications, a successful interview, and positive reference checks,” Reese said.
Welch and Ilias still want to sub in Portland schools.
Ilias is getting closer – she had her first assignment as a paraeducator this week, a position that pays less than a teacher but involves being in the classroom and helping students. She’s hoping a couple of schools will sponsor her to be a substitute teacher in their school.
But PPS teachers have noted other similar instances.
Teachers question hiring practices
As the vice president of Portland’s teachers’ union, part of Gwen Sullivan’s job is checking in with building representatives to see how teachers are doing. She has each of them fill out a form to share what’s going on in each school.
“Teachers are sick, are burning out, and need to take time, others are isolating or quarantined,” she reads from one of the forms. “Staff are getting tired of subbing during their prep [period].”
Like other districts, PPS is sending central office staff to help fill positions in school buildings. But when there aren’t enough central office workers, the district has authorized school principals to assign teachers to cover unfilled sub jobs.
Sullivan also teaches as an adjunct in Portland State University’s graduate teaching program.
She said it took months this year for one of her former students, a certified teacher, to get an interview. He was eventually hired by the district as a substitute.
“There’s a lack of trust because, right now, there are so many of our schools that are struggling because of this short staffing,” Sullivan said. “It makes you think that they don’t care, or they don’t feel like there’s a sense of urgency in the way that they should.”
When McDaniel High School teacher Darshanpreet Gill started hearing about people not getting hired as substitutes, she posed the question in a Facebook group. She counted 23 people who responded to her informal poll, saying they knew someone who did not get hired or hear back after applying.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Gill said.
In addition to Ilias, Vernon teacher Dennis said she’s encouraged a few others to submit applications for substitute jobs with the district, including her grandson. She said he got a couple of his friends to apply.
She said her grandson called her after the interview.
“He called me that afternoon, and he told me the interview went really well,” Dennis recalled.
But she said he didn’t hear back for weeks. By the time he did, she said he’d accepted another education-related position somewhere else.
Reese said a “number of applicants” have withdrawn from the process as they found other work, or for other personal reasons.
Dennis said she knows of one former teacher who got hired as a sub, but several others have not.
“I was really disappointed in that because if you need some bodies, why not some brown bodies that can relate to the kids who are in school, that don’t see anybody brown all day long,” Dennis said.
Sullivan said there should be care in choosing the right people for these roles, but she’d like more information from the district about how they’re choosing folks.
“It’s not a singular issue, it’s actually pretty complicated,” Sullivan said. “Yes we want more people, but we want to be part of understanding what the criteria is for allowing them to become emergency substitute educators? What criteria are they using?”
PPS’ Reese said new hires must pass background checks and take training, including classroom management training.
“We expedite applications of candidates who know and work with our students, usually based on principal recommendations because they understand the needs of their students,” Reese said. “This includes current student teachers and the staff of our community-based school partners.”
PPS still has open positions for substitute teachers, paraeducators, school secretaries and other positions, but as far as critical staffing shortages forcing buildings to close — the district may have weathered the worst. All but 11 PPS schools have remained open.
The last closure was announced on January 14, and the last three schools in distance learning are set to return to in-person learning Tuesday.