COVID and the substitute teacher dilemma

Niki Mallik

More stories from Niki Mallik


Illustration by Nora Talbott

Teachers often have trouble hiring substitutes to cover their classes. Many receive no responses to their job offerings.

Substitute teachers are a fundamental part of successful classroom learning. Teachers, like students, need to take days off sometimes, be it for sickness, appointments or anything else. But unlike students, they can’t simply be absent without preparation; before taking a day off, they have to go through the process of scheduling a substitute teacher.

Ashley Herdman teaches Honors English 9 and Honors English 12. She broke her ankle earlier this school year and needed a follow-up appointment with an orthopedist. A colleague recommended a specific substitute to her, but that substitute had already booked another job. Three days before her appointment, Herdman put up a notice for a substitute.
“In school, if we were in the physical building at Walter Johnson, we would just have some type of coverage. Either by another substitute in the building, or someone from the department that’s off that period,” Herdman said.

No substitute took her job listing. Herdman cancelled class and put the classwork on Canvas for her students to complete. Her students were able to reach out with any questions. Herdman maintains the importance of teachers prioritizing their health regardless of the availability of substitutes.

“I know a lot of teachers that will cancel their sub job and cancel their appointment to come and meet with [their students]. Which, you know, I totally understand, but at the same time, we’re in a pandemic and we kind of have to put our health and safety first,” Herdman said.

Allison Hoefling found herself in a similar predicament. The educator, who teaches AP World, Honors Modern World History and the APEX senior seminar class, circumvented the lack of substitute availability by contacting a recently retired teacher to substitute for her classes.

“This particular friend of mine I knew would be able to handle the technology. That was really the main concern I had,” Hoefling said.

Her chosen sub, Mike Miller, is a former WJ social studies teacher. He supervised her class, which was given work to do that didn’t require a teacher to direct them.

Similar to Herdman and Hoefling, Jennifer Taylor, a social studies teacher, was faced with a lack of protocol in place for hiring a substitute teacher during a pandemic. Though she was able to eventually navigate the system and find a way to cover her classes, she was discontent with the absence of guidance.

“It was frustrating to have to figure it out on my own, that no one quite knew any answers of how the process should go or the best practices,” Taylor said.