Denver school districts face substitute teacher shortage

Denver metro school districts are facing another challenge in the return to the classroom: They can’t find enough substitutes to fill in when a teacher is absent.

The shortage existed before this year, but has increased during the pandemic — despite districts broadening their pool of substitute teachers by hiring more. Districts are also experiencing staffing issues in other areas, such as school nursing and bus drivers.

There’s no one reason for the shortage, three districts said — some substitutes accepted other jobs and others are concerned about returning to the classroom because of COVID-19.

As of last week, at least 80 K-12 schools in the state have COVID-19 outbreaks, which has affected least 126 staff members.

“We do have a shortage of substitute teachers this year and it is exasperated by COVID,” Cherry Creek School District spokeswoman Abbe Smith said in an email, adding, “This year, a contributing factor in the shortage is that a good number of our substitutes are retired teachers, and many of them have chosen not to return.”

During this time of the school year, Douglas County School District typically is able to fill between 90% and 100% of teacher absences with a substitute. But in the past week, the district could fill only 75% and 85% of absences despite having a pool of more than 1,000 substitutes, spokeswoman Paula Hans said in an email.

Most of the unfilled vacancies are in the district’s high schools, she said, noting that “… we believe that there are some who are no longer actively substituting.”

Denver Public Schools is experiencing a similar situation when it comes to finding someone to fill in when a teacher is sick, filling only 73% of vacancies with a substitute this year compared to 93% last year.

The district increased how much it pays substitute teachers this academic year in an effort to address the shortage, and started hiring people who have high school diplomas and a one-year substitute license from the state, said Lacey Nelson, DPS director of talent acquisition.

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