Opinion: Substitute teachers sweep in during pandemic
As the 2020-2021 school year approached, I wondered and worried about how my children would respond to so many changes at once. I also worried about their teachers with the added workload and responsibilities they were given, as well as the possibility of getting the dreaded virus. For the last nine years, I’ve volunteered at my children’s elementary school as a choir director, house parent, one-on-one reading help and school newspaper editor, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, most of my volunteering opportunities disappeared. When I saw signs pleading for substitute teachers at the end of summer, I decided to apply for the job.
“We were really blessed to have so many people answer the call for substitutes,” said Joseph Fitzgerald, VP of Operations in Utah for the substitute staffing company ESS. The company is nationwide and Alpine School District is the second largest district they serve. “We started campaigning heavily in April and we were still well short of the number of subs we needed by August. After a TV news story, we had 800 applicants in one week.”
This is the first year for ESS in Utah and hundreds of long-time substitute teachers did not switch over to ESS for the 2020-2021 school year. “There were people who didn’t want to work during a pandemic,” explained Fitzgerald. Hundreds more non-traditional workers like me and college students did sign on, though. “People saw the need and many highly educated and skilled former teachers and professionals signed up. We’ve got graduate students studying education and undergrads who are getting their feet wet as teachers, too.”
“With ASD we had to start from scratch finding substitutes, which ended up being a good thing,” Fitzgerald went on. For the new substitute teachers, all the COVID-19 restrictions are just part of the job. Every week, ESS fills between 1,600 and 1,700 substitute jobs with 1,164 employees.
“Leaving my class with someone is hard – it really is like finding a babysitter. I want it to be someone I know I can trust,” said Brittany Gray, a third-grade teacher in Lehi. “It used to be easier to take some Dayquil and just come in to work rather than write a sub plan and find someone to come in. We never come into work sick now. I’m glad that mindset is changing, but it’s hard.”
After I’d completed six hours of online training videos, including instruction on how to put on a mask properly, I was in the ESS system, I started getting a call every morning at about 6:15 alerting me to a substitute job that needed to be filled. It only took a few days of that for me to figure out how to set my parameters, and I gave my number to the secretaries and teachers at my children’s schools. Now I’m in classrooms with children I’ve worked with over the years, my boys’ friends from the neighborhood, and my friends’ children. I still get text messages about once a week with last-minute jobs, but I get to decide if I go in or not.
I’ve discovered quiet sixth grade girls who love the same books I do and fifth grade boys who can put beautiful sentences together. I’ve seen girls and boys work together to solve math problems. There’s an eager helper in every class ready to show me how to use the overhead projector and how to get the attention of the class. They don’t mind keeping their masks on and they remember to get a pump of hand sanitizer every time they enter the room. I love reading to them while they work on cursive – it doesn’t matter what grade they are in; all the kids love to listen to a good book. I was sweating after only a few hours as a first-grade teacher, but I made new best friends who drew me sweet pictures that day too.
“One of the perks of working for ESS is that we live locally. Our kids go to the schools we’re staffing – we’re invested. We want the best substitutes, and we want them to know we’re going to be there when they need us,” said Maren Mather, area manager for ESS in Alpine School District.
ESS is always hiring. Their goal is to hire 100 individuals every month. “You can work every day if you want. It can be a full-time or part-time job,” said Joseph Fitzgerald. Interested applicants can apply at www.ess.com/alpine.