JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Many school districts will return to the classroom next week for a new school year, but many schools are facing a shortage of teachers and substitutes.
For years, the state of Missouri has endured a teacher shortage, but state leaders say COVID made the lack of educators more prominent. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is making it easier to become a substitute teacher and spending millions to address the teacher shortage.
“It’s certainly was happening before COVID, it just elevated since COVID,” DESE Commissioner Margie Vandeven said.
To become a substitute teacher in Missouri, now all an applicant need is a computer.
“They still have to go through all the other fingerprints, background checks, and all those other requirements that are necessary, but it just opens up one more avenue to provide substitute teachers in our schools,” Vandeven said.
Last August, the State Board of Education approved a temporary option allowing applications to take 20 hours of online training instead of the 60 college credit hours.
“We had administrators who felt like they were even more prepared than some of the folks they have with 60 credit hours,” Office of Educator Quality Assistant Commissioner Paul Katnik told the board.
Katnik said there were more than 4,000 applicants who took advantage of the online training.
“Pending your vote today, then we will take steps this fall to coincide training kicking up in time for the rule being official,” Katnik said.
The board voted Wednesday to make the rule permanent starting at the end of 2021. The training would be through a service called Frontline.
The cost of the course is expected to cost similar to what candidates paid last fall, around $175. Katnik said the department will continue to monitor the outcome of the virtual program.
Those looking to become substitute teachers still have the option to take the 60 college credit hours.
Besides training, DESE plan to invest $50 million in COVID relief money to address the teacher shortage. Offering $10,000 grants to districts.
“These grants of course are intended to increase the recruitment into the profession,” Assistant Commissioner for DESE Chris Neal said.
Board member Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge from Pasadena Hills told other members she’s concerned about 500 different plans to increase teacher quality and pay.
“It just feels like we are just throwing $50 million at the problem and hoping that the local districts figure it out,” Westbrooks-Hodge said. “I fear that we might lose sight of the overarching efficiency if we are funding different plans.”
Vice President of the board Vic Lenz Jr. told the board he has heard even suburban districts are having a hard time finding teachers.
“In the past, it’s been, you don’t want to be a teacher because they don’t make enough money,” Lenz said.
“We need to look at raising the salaries and we need to change the rhetoric of what becoming a teacher is.”
Another $50 million of federal relief money is expected to go towards broadband pending approval from the U.S. Department of Education.
Neal told the board that one in every five students does not have access to the internet in their home.
Vandeven told board members about the COVID guidance DESE sent to schools earlier this month. She said reiterate that mask mandates and mitigation strategies should be decided by the local level since Missouri is a local control state.
“What’s happening in one pocket of the state might not be happening in others,” Vandeven said.
The guidelines include promoting vaccination among students and teachers and offering COVID testing at schools. The Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) is offering funds and staff for testing.
“This doesn’t mean that this will be like this for the entire school year,” Vandeven said. “We seem to not agree on a lot right now with reopening, but we do agree on one thing and that is our kids need to be back in school for the most part. Most kids benefit from being in person.”
Vandeven said she is aware of some school districts offering incentives for teachers to get the vaccine.
“I’m aware of at least two districts who have gone to requirements for staff,” Vandeven said. “We’ve heard about incentives for financial incentives for teachers and staff to be vaccinated and we are looking into the implementations for that.”
She said some districts are requiring masks while others are leaving it up to parents or making students wear them while crossing the classroom and when social distance cannot be maintained.
“If you’re a vaccinated staff member and you do not need to quarantine, think of how that balances out your year for you,” Vandeven said. “Ten days of quarantine for a teacher is significant, financially and on the student.”