[It’s been over a year since I’ve written this piece, but people may still accidentally happen upon it. Many perceptions about COVID evolved over time from when I first wrote this piece, but I stand by the words I wrote at the time I wrote them based on the information we had access to. None of the content below has been adjusted in any way since the initial publishing. Makes for an interesting time capsule of sorts. Thank you for looking!]
My Substituting History
I haven’t been substitute teaching for terribly long. My first gig was September 11th, 2018, so given the school closures in March, approximately a school year and a half. Because of this, I won’t proclaim to be some all-knowing authority who has seen 10,000 different classrooms and teaching philosophies and knows everything there is to know about being a teacher. But it is certainly long enough to know that I genuinely enjoy doing it, and long enough to give me a great deal of insight into what goes on behind the scenes.
Though the job is not without its cons, one of the pros of being a substitute teacher is finding schools, and even particular classrooms, that really gel with you. When you know what you like, you focus as much of your attention as possible in a couple spots that are regularly positive experiences. Unbelievably conveniently, I absolutely adored the elementary school that my very first sub job was at. I passed around a few business cards to hopefully get a couple more bites, and they came. As it turned out, that school needed subs with surprising regularity.
In the school year and a half that I have been substitute teaching (I didn’t sub every single day, but certainly most days), exactly four of my school days weren’t at this particular elementary school. Many of the employees make regular jokes about how I’m basically part of the school staff and talk about me getting my own parking spot. I really feel as though I get along phenomenally well with the entirety of the faculty. Even better, the kids themselves are also great. To say there aren’t a few knuckleheads would be disingenuous, because come on, it’s elementary school. This is exactly the time being a knucklehead is most okay because it gives opportunity for learning and growth. By and large, the students at this school are great kids, and I really enjoy getting to work with them.
Working at the same school all the time does wonders for how smooth my days go. It’s normal for kids to not always be receptive to an unfamiliar face at that age, but because I’ve been inside nearly every classroom of this school at least a few times, the kids get much more comfortable because I’m no longer a new face. Even if I’m not in their room, I’m in the halls, the cafeteria, and the playground as a person they always see. The consistency also means that I have a great grasp on school protocols and expectations of students. And, if I’m being honest with myself, there are some concepts and lessons I haven’t thought much about since my own time in elementary school, so on some occasions I even get to re-learn something with them, which can be genuinely fun when you’re with kids you know better.
I just can’t get over how lucky I was to find this school that was close to me, had an earlier start like I wanted, and had a delightful assortment of both staff and students on my very first day.
I know you wouldn’t think it reading the above paragraphs, but I didn’t write this exclusively to brag about my good fortune with substitute teaching. Rather, I think the context and background is necessary to go into how COVID-19 and the opening of schools will possibly affect a sub like me.
I substitute teach in Las Vegas, Nevada. For us, the official declaration of school closures came from the governor’s office on March 15. The original plan was to get physical schooling back in session after spring break, but it wasn’t long before the decision came to just close for the remainder of the year. A couple days after the school closures, the casino closure mandate came around. More specifically, the “nonessential business” closure happened, and casinos were a massive part of that.
Unsurprisingly, the casino and general entertainment/tourism industry in Las Vegas employs a large percentage of the local population. Based on some data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, there is a safe estimate that about 25 percent of the workers in the Las Vegas Valley belong to those industries, which admittedly expands a little beyond the casinos. While a great many have been laid off fully or at minimum furloughed, that percentage still feels incredibly high. But hey, tourist town. Nature of the beast.
As a result, there was a lot of cautious optimism from the community when some casinos were allowed to reopen starting on June 4, shortly following some other nonessential business re-openings that happened on May 29. Like most of the country, the cabin fever was heavy (though, to be honest, it was never as bad for us as in some other parts of the country), and we were looking forward to trying to get SOMETHING that resembled normal living. Certainly with some restrictions in place, such as plastic shielding, masks and hand sanitizer being available all over the casino floors, and social distancing mandates.
For a little while at the beginning of the shutdowns, Nevada was actually regularly in the top three states with good quarantine practices like minimizing going out and taking the appropriate safety precautions, including wearing masks, being smart about touching shared surfaces, and using hand sanitizer, as hard as it was to obtain in the early days of the shutdown. So why wouldn’t we think we could continue to play it as safe as possible while slowly trying to open up other businesses?
As it turns out, we probably dropped the ball with that line of thinking. Almost immediately following the nonessential business re-openings, the number of new daily cases in Las Vegas skyrocketed. Even accounting for a notable increase in testing, which would naturally inflate the numbers a little bit, the actual percentage rate of COVID-19 spread is increasing. Compared to being among the most well-behaved states a couple months ago, we’ve now crashed and tumbled towards the bottom. Using the same link above, we can see that our death rates have also been getting worse since the end of June. But even if deaths were going down, deaths are not the only means of assessing the seriousness of this virus. As our understanding of it increases, we’re starting to realize that having it, even if you’re asymptomatic, can cause legitimate long-term harm to people even if the end result isn’t death. This is a serious problem, but based on the numbers, many people in this community (probably aided by tourists) have decided we’re safe enough and we can continue forward.
I won’t lie, I’ve loved having all this time to myself to work on things I’ve been meaning to get to and play certain video games I’ve been dying to play and have an easier time starting to transition to calorie counting when eating, etc. But I’d love to be able to get back to working and having something akin to a real working schedule. I would love to be able to get back in those classrooms and help these kids learn and develop while trying to be a “cool sub.” I would love it love it love it. But I have very little hope that our community will be ready for this by August 24 when my school district is supposed to open back up.
At the time of my writing, nothing about school reopening procedures has been entirely set in stone. Clark County School District (CCSD) came up with a plan that was voted on and passed, but needs to be accepted by the state before being put into place. Under the voted-on system, parents get to choose to either have their students show up to school two days a week and do distance learning the other three days, or do distance learning entirely until the situation is much safer. The caveat to the state vote is that more details must be ironed out by the time the vote arrives, and at this point, we just don’t have those details yet. Here is an in-depth article from the local paper talking about the process and expectations.
One can see that the goals of such a system are well-intentioned and seemingly inclusive, but how well-thought-out they are in the short and long-term is entirely up for debate. There are plenty of conversations to be had about how working parents will handle childcare, the impacts of distance vs physical learning for an extended period of time, the impacts on family members who may be part of an at-risk population but will have a difficult time managing distance learning five days a week, and many topics beyond these. That said, my research into those areas hasn’t been thorough enough for me to feel comfortable discussing them, and I don’t have a desire to risk spreading misinformation for the sake of making this article even longer. But these are absolutely considerations for everyone somehow tangentially involved with CCSD, whether as an employee or a recipient of their services.
Point of information, CCSD is the fifth largest school district in the country based on enrollment. Over 325,000 students that I could potentially substitute for are going to need to figure something out in approximately one month. If we put this many students and the necessary faculty in schools next month, even at two or four days a week, I cannot imagine our situation in the valley getting better.
Now, how does all this tie back to me, as a substitute teacher?
As A Substitute
For the longest time, I was incredibly unconcerned with my own health when it came to this virus. I’m 27 and in decent health with no at-risk conditions affecting me. However, because asymptomatic spread is a factor, I still gladly donned my mask every time I left the house to protect others who may not feel so confident in their body’s ability to stop this nonsense. Back at the beginning, I practically thought I was invincible. But given enough time, we started to realize how incorrect it is to assume that young adults are in a position where they needn’t worry about spread.
Like many other teachers whose opinions I’ve heard on the matter, there is genuine concern, if not fear, over being in the same confined space with other people for such an extended period of time. No matter how you slice it, there are so many variables that have to be considered when we talk about potential spread of COVID-19 among the populous of a school.
Much like the teachers in charge of the specials (PE, art, music, and library, just in case they go by another name elsewhere), I’ve gotten to know literally the entire population of this school. These are kids whose health and well-being is a legitimate concern to me, and none of them deserve to be shoved back into these buildings before it’s safe.
Even if we manage to navigate around all the potentially cataclysmic situations that can result in widespread coronavirus cases through CCSD schools and outlets, the honest fact of the matter is that they don’t pay me enough to take the risk. I realize it’s difficult to talk about the money without making it seem like my concern isn’t where it should be (that is, the other people inside the building), but to say it isn’t a factor would be a lie.
In CCSD, I get paid $90 a day for subbing, which adds up to about $12.50 an hour. If I worked the entire school year, all 180 days, I would make $16,200 before taxes. This is also a job that offers no benefits or perks. Just the paycheck for your time. Part of this also comes from the fact that you only need to work four days a month to retain licensure, making it super easy for someone who works a job over the weekends to also be a substitute teacher if they wanted. Naturally though, at that pay rate, I have to work two jobs to put together enough to have a reasonable living. Las Vegas isn’t a very high cost-of-living area, but if my current living situation wasn’t an incredibly accommodating one, I would have a phenomenally hard time making it work as a substitute teacher. Just to add, summer school substituting is reserved exclusively for full-time CCSD teachers wanting to make extra cash. So that’s not an option for me.
In order to be a substitute teacher in CCSD, you need to have 60 college credits. An associate’s degree worth of college, whether or not you have a degree. I gave subbing a shot after I graduated with a BA in Journalism because it was the easiest thing for me to navigate to following being done with my own education. Now, I realize these days that degrees and credits in general don’t carry you as far as they did in the past. But that this job mandates an expensive college education for such a small sum of pay, especially considering the job literally cannot be full-time because of holiday breaks and school days being shorter than eight hours, feels like nonsense to me. I didn’t really think about it at the start because I just needed work and substituting was something I comfortably felt I could do. But given hindsight and some recent conversation, it really isn’t that fair of a trade.
Just to be clear, I don’t believe I should make as much as an actual teacher. To suggest so would be ludicrous. But substitute teachers are an absolute necessity, especially in a school district as large as CCSD. Teachers deserve their sick days and personal days, and I love the opportunity to be in a room for just one day and not have to handle the same baggage that they do. So of course I don’t expect to make the $40,000 minimum salary that all CCSD teachers make (which, as someone who has really seen what they go through, absolutely needs to start higher). However, I still feel like subs could be thrown a little bit of a bone. When subs cannot actually live off the job CCSD is offering when it’s a necessity for a well-functioning school district, it puts so many of them off.
And NOW, you’re telling me that I have to accept what is fairly mediocre pay at the same time as a pandemic is happening? Christ, good luck. Now, to be totally fair, because the final details for even regular staff has yet to be all the way confirmed, I have no way of knowing what will change for me as a substitute. If there are only four in-person days a week, does that mean that for the foreseeable future, my maximum potential wages are cut by 20 percent? Will the sub pay be increased at all to accommodate this? Probably not, because there’s a possible school budget cut proposal working its way through the state legislature as a way to offset the lost tax revenue from the pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, I realize it might be a necessary evil because preparing for this virus in any reasonable way was totally impossible, but it still will have a direct impact on my decision-making.
If I do a gig, do I need to engage in any of the online programs? I have to assume some kids will come to school with questions about the distance learning they did in the days leading up to their in-person lessons. How easy will it be to take the time to make a lesson out what they were supposed to learn at home? Do I have access to the program to actually understand what is expected of them? How much will things change as far as in-school behaviors that all subs might have to learn from school to school?
I started this past school year by filling a vacancy in second grade for a month and a half. Because of this, I sat in on all the pre-year staff meetings to go over whatever school details we needed to go over. I’m not filling a vacancy this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I went to some meetings anyway due to my impending regularity at this school. I have to imagine a lot of key details will be gone over in those meetings that other subs who don’t have a “home school” like I do likely won’t be able to fully internalize for every school they go to. Will there probably be some universal CCSD protocols that subs will just have to go over and apply to every school? Yeah, I don’t doubt it. But every school also tends to have its own special ecosystem of methodologies and protocols underneath the broad umbrella of “follow these policies, but besides that, handle yourselves.”
I’m in a position where my subbing job would almost certainly be easier than any other school-hopping sub, and I STILL worry a lot about how things are going to happen going forward. Speaking of school-hopping, subs themselves could easily be some of the worst carriers if they manage to catch the virus. At least everyone else working in the building will be able to remain within their own bubble to make it easier to contact trace to some extent (that thing we really should be doing a heck of a lot more of). But subs? If we’re working every day, which we’ll almost certainly have to be if we’re getting a docked a weekday worth of pay under this new system, we’re now presented with a situation where we HAVE to go building to building, potentially spreading COVID-19 as an asymptomatic carrier to several schools before we find out we may have gotten sick at some point.
At my school, and honestly many others in the valley, there will be low-income students who will have issues with distance learning. Many of these children also live inside a household with their grandparents, whether as a cost-saving measure by the family or because the grandparents are the full guardians of the child. Even if they don’t have grandparents in their home, at-risk conditions are not hard to find among the general population as is. These groups of people, low-income with minimal distance-learning access while also being a household with at-risk conditions, will be in an absolutely brutal position with their child’s schooling. I will say there has been a legitimate attempt to work on this by some schools (I don’t have the data for numbers) letting kids take Chromebook laptops home with them to have a means of doing their work easily. But Chromebooks without internet access don’t really offer as much use as we’d like. Granted, this speaks to a broader issue of the struggles of low-income individuals in society that cannot be directly tied back to issues with the school district, but this cannot be an ignored problem all the same.
You might be aware of this, but on top of this, a not-unreasonable population of substitute teachers are actually retired teachers themselves and many are well-within the at-risk age range. For them to continue subbing under the current system seems incredibly unwise, so CCSD will likely already be losing some of its sub population right there, just compounding the problem.
I genuinely love substitute teaching. But the past four months, alongside some personal realizations that were likely granted thanks to all the free time I have, have seriously done a lot to change my perception of what I’m being offered for what I put into it. After gaining a little bit of insight on this, I’m no longer surprised that the daily list of substitute requests ends up as large as it does. I knew that teachers at my school were at least mildly appreciative of me subbing there so regularly and largely being the “on-call” guy for the school, but I’m now realizing how much of that was straight up cherishing the fact that a sub was available at all. This school district has a mighty fine shortage of them given our size, and it’s because the compensation is so little relative to what we offer if we’re doing a good job and relative to the requirements to even hop aboard. To now have to consider these aspects while also having a pandemic in our faces is only going to hurt this balance even more if something isn’t done.
I’m fully at the point where I am looking for other work because I feel I can no longer rely on substitute teaching as a solid means of income going forward, and certainly not in this current environment. It’s a damn shame, but so is just about everything that’s going on these days.
Microsoft Word is now telling me this is a little over 3,000 words long. I feel like I’ve said the majority of what I need to say, and I apologize if some of it might be a little bit disjointed as some of it was most certainly word vomit. But if I had to summarize, being a substitute is something I very much so enjoy doing. I realize that some of the benefits come from the immense flexibility of the job, but despite this flexibility, the pay feels substandard for what we’re offering. Fanning the flame with COVID-19 is going to do us no favors, and returning to school at this point in time, even with the precautions in place, seems unwise for a whole smattering of reasons. I honestly can’t say I know for certain what the ideal plan going forward is, but I feel pretty confident this path isn’t it.
[As an aside, I tried to not make this a “boo-hoo me” article. I realize that the things I’m worried about have already been affecting “essential employees” for four months with, in nearly every case, zero additional compensation and I find that to be absolutely horrid. The idea that these people have received no additional federal assistance like I did through unemployment while they perform these duties that are very typically not far from minimum wage is awful and I wanted to make my stance on that clear. However, the substitute angle is another perspective that I hadn’t seen discussed a whole lot and wanted to add to the conversation in that way.]