Arcata High School. | Outpost file photo


It’s a good time to be a substitute teacher, but a bad time to need one. 

On trend with jobs going unfilled in pretty much all workforce sectors, school districts across Humboldt County are facing a dire sub shortage and are going to unprecedented efforts to incentivize qualified people to join the smaller-than-ever local substitute pool. 

“The demand is super high,” Robert Bernstein, a local substitute teacher, told the Outpost

“I don’t know where all the subs went. I do know that the schools are having real problems because often they can’t cover teacher needs when teachers are out.”

Of the 129 open positions listed on the Humboldt County Office of Education website, 23 are for substitute teachers and paraprofessionals. 

At one point, there seemed to be a glut of teacher candidates in Humboldt County — likely because of Humboldt State’s teacher credentialing programs — which made it very easy to find substitutes, Bernstein said. 

He speculates the shortage must be the result of the learn-from-home norms that dominated many of Humboldt’s schools for more than a year because of COVID. Subs largely weren’t needed during that time, Bernstein said, and so many probably sought alternative employment or retired early. The very small remaining sub pool — paired with across-the-board school staff vacancies and the safety and testing efforts schools must take in precaution to COVID-19 — makes for a very bad situation. 

“We have been able to keep the shortage away from students but many of us are doing extra work to cover vacancies as well as doing all of the COVID testing, contact tracing and communication that goes with it,” Roger Macdonald, superintendent at the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, told the Outpost in an email. 

Other (smaller) school districts aren’t able to keep the impact of so few substitute teachers away from students. Jeff Northern, superintendent at Fortuna Elementary School District, said that the shortage has been a huge issue in his district. 

“Since the beginning of this school year, we have had to pull intervention teachers, reading specialists, English Language Development teachers, music teachers, etc. from their programs in order to cover general education teachers who have been absent, ill, or just not available to teach their own classes for various reasons,” Northern said. 

“Obviously, by pulling those teachers out of their programs in order to cover general education classrooms, it adversely affects their specialized programs and the students whom they serve. Principals only pull those teachers working in special programs as a very last resort, but oftentimes, there are no other alternatives and we can never leave a general education class without a credentialed teacher in charge.” 

The situation is so bad the Humboldt County Office of Education has actually had to close classrooms at some of their school sites, said Superintendent of Schools Chris Hartley. 

“HCOE has needed to close classrooms due to workforce issues and lack of qualified substitutes for both classroom teachers and paraprofessionals,” Hartley said. “Fortunately it is not a daily experience but has been necessary.”

Hartley said he couldn’t speak to what the districts are facing, but he knows the shortages are widespread. 

Humboldt is not at all alone. School districts across the state and nation are desperate for substitute teachers, and temporarily closing classrooms due to a lack of options is also happening elsewhere. 

Because of the shortage, substitute teaching is undergoing some significant and likely attractive changes. For one, folks are getting paid more now than they were before the pandemic, which is a change that was much-needed to begin with, Bernstein said. 

“Sub pay, at many of the schools here, was not a respectable pay if you have any expectations and want a qualified person,” said Bernstein, who taught full-time in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 15 years and has been working as a sub in Humboldt for the last seven. 

Before the pandemic, subs around here could expect around $100 a day, Bernstein said — for a job that is not easy or respected, really. 

“It wasn’t a fair compensation, so I personally wouldn’t take a lot of days,” he said. “It’s a higher pay now. I find it much more equitable and I’m more happy to do it now.”

The schools he’s familiar with have increased pay for substitute teachers by 50 percent or more. 

“It’s the right move, [but] I don’t know if it’s temporary money because of COVID relief,” Bernstein said. 

It’s a measure that Fortuna Elementary School District has taken, with a pay increase of $125 to $150 for substitute teachers, Northern told the Outpost

Bernstein knows that some districts are looking to employ “roving substitutes,” which are substitutes who are employed full-time rather than on a day-by-day basis. Having roving substitutes on staff ensures that someone will always be available to step in. 

Bernstein said that he’s never heard of schools in Humboldt hiring roving substitutes before now. 

Financial incentives for substitutes are popping up across the board in Humboldt. HCOE is hosting its first-ever substitute teacher orientation next week in an effort to widen the pool of qualified folks. The training is free, and the first 100 people to register will be reimbursed up to $150 for the permit and live scan fees related to substitute teaching. Interested folks need to pre-register for the event, scheduled for Thurs., Nov. 4, from 3:30-5:00 PM. Substitutes do not need a teaching credential; the minimum requirements are a Bachelor’s degree and fulfillment of the California State basic skills requirements, which can be met via a number of tests, including a qualifying SAT score, for example.  

Now’s the time to become a sub. It really is a decent gig, reasoned Stephanie Steffano-Davis, superintendent at Southern Humboldt Unified School District, which is facing the impacts of the shortage.

“It’s very flexible in that you set your own days you are willing to work, what grade levels, and what subject matter (especially at the junior high school and high school levels),” Steffano-Davis said. “In my experience, most teachers begin their careers with some substitute work to help get a feeling for what kinds of teaching positions will be the best fit.

“Substitute teaching is a great way to help make a difference in the world by being there for young people.”