'It's sink or swim': Local substitute teachers talk filling in for a classroom during COVID-19 pandemic

Local subs talk technology challenges, logistics of filling in for a classroom during COVID-19 pandemic

The use of substitute teachers in a district largely depends on the type of learning the school is using – at least it did before the county health department recommended an adaptive pause, pushing all schools into remote learning until at least Jan. 19 because of the current COVID-19 surge.

But whether a school was in a hybrid model, full remote or even a full-day in-person session, just as there are challenges for regular classroom teachers, there are challenges for substitutes as well.

"It's kind of like sitting in the cockpit of an airplane with all these instruments and you don't know what to do," said Linda Kerr, a substitute in DeKalb District 428 for 26 years. "The difficult thing is the teachers have just learned how to do it themselves and are still fresh at it, let alone anyone teaching a sub how to do it. So it's been a problem we have not been trained. It's sink or swim. You have to be willing to be embarrassed because you don't know what you are doing."

At a district board meeting earlier this year, Sycamore Superintendent Steve Wilder mentioned the difficulty the districts have had finding substitute teachers during the pandemic.

And for a district like DeKalb, which has been majority remote learning for the year since classrooms went digital in March, it leaves subbing opportunities few and far between.

Kerr said normally she subs every day, but this year has only worked 15 days so far.

Kevin Beverley, a retired teacher who worked at DeKalb High and Huntley Middle School, was subbing in the DeKalb district in previous years. This year, he's been going to Genoa-Kingston District 424 for work.

"This year, I'm trying to get whatever I can," Beverley said. "Some positions at Genoa-Kingston and/or DeKalb whenever they come back in. Hopefully back at DeKalb at some point. I would love to see that happen."

And although he started his career at Genoa-Kingston before moving to DeKalb schools, it was in the late 1980s he said and in a different building. So everything about this year for him, from the district to the hybrid learning plan G-K has used most of the year, has been a change.

"It is different," Beverley said. "I was very comfortable at the classrooms in DeKalb because that's where I was a teacher. I knew the kids, I knew the teachers, I knew the administrators. Pretty much felt at home there. Now I felt like I was walking into a tricky situation where I was going to have to establish myself as a sub in a new school. We all hear the horror stories about how bad kids can be for substitute teachers."

Beverley said he was ready for the worst but has been very pleased with how well things have gone when he has subbed in the classroom.

"But I've got to be honest, the kids as well as the staff at Genoa-Kingston, and the admin at Genoa-Kingston, have been great," Beverly said. "It really couldn't have gone any better. It's a little strange to be in a room where the teacher is still teaching the class. I can still hear, the kids open their Chromebooks and start their lesson. They're in class with their teacher and I'm kind of trying to stay in the background, out of the way."

Teaching with technology

When a school is on a hybrid plan -- meaning most of the learning is done remotely via technology with a few caveats for in-person learning -- a sub can be used one of two ways. The subs can act as classroom support while the teacher, who can't come into school for whatever reason, provides back up from home. If the teacher can't work from home, then the sub is running the show.

In DeKalb with its mostly remote plan, the sub comes into the classroom and teaches the kids, who are at home.

The adjustment to using Google classroom was tricky, Kerr said.

"They have not trained us at all in any of this," Kerr said. "The first day I was at Huntley Middle School, I got a key to the classroom, and there was a computer. I was supposed to get on it and teach the classes. I got a teacher next door to help me. Usually, there are lessons in all fairness, but I had no experience, and most subs have no experience with Google classroom."

Kerr said the other teachers have been helpful in facilitating the learning curve.

Deetra Sallis, director of human resources for District 428, said the district will begin giving subs pointers in the technology end of online learning.

"We are going to identify some training so individuals can learn more about Google classroom and what to do in a more day-to-day subbing role," Sallis said. "That is something we are working on."

Kerr did say most of her subbing opportunities came with in-person students - DeKalb had a limited number of special-needs students attending classes until the adaptive pause which took effect Monday.

While DeKalb's model has limited the work for the substitutes, other districts have been using the stand-in substitutes heavily.

Julie Benson, who has been subbing in Sycamore for five years, said she's had only six days off this year.

She's the mother of three in the District 427 - Nola Benson is a senior at the high school, Leah Benson a sophomore and Nora Benson a fifth-grader - and said her family decided they would do in-person learning.

Since her kids were back, she figured she'd go back, too.

"If I'm going to send my kids to school, it's no different me being there either," Benson said. "I feel good about the precautions the school is doing with their in-person learning. ... So I didn't really hesitate. I was excited to be back."

On Monday, Sycamore schools also returned to a remote-learning model per the health department's recommendation.

For Beverly in DeKalb and Genoa-Kingston (also remote), he said he wasn't too worried about returning, but knows of teachers who were.

"They decided the risk was too high for their particular situation," Beverley said. "I thought about it quite a bit. I did have a COVID test. It was negative, thankfully. And I've been very impressed with how careful the staff and admin have been at G-K to put everything in place the way it needs to be to keep the kids safe and the staff safe."

At Indian Creek, the elementary and middle school students have been back in-person, with the high schoolers on a hybrid plan.

Paula Kennedy, the district curriculum and technology director, said the district has been using mostly internal substitutes, having teachers or other staff step in to fill in for other teachers.

"We definitely have to find internal most days," Kennedy said. "We do have a handful of subs that are able to come that are reliable and comfortable using technology, but our trusted retired teachers are just not available because of their circumstances or concerns with COVID."

Kennedy said there are definitely challenges for substitutes dealing with hybrid learning, teaching to both in-person and at-home students at the same time.

She said the process has been constantly evolving as well, with the district making tweaks to better accommodate suggestions.

"The challenge is there. It's a lot," Kennedy said. "You don't have control over the environment the student is in. There can be a lot of distractions. We have a wonderful community and wonderful parents that are right in there and want to help the kids. But sometimes you want to see what the kid knows without any help. So with our wonderful parents, we might have parents that might help a little too much."

Sallis said DeKalb is looking for subs. Anyone interested can email askhr@d428.org.

She said she has encountered some people skeptical about coming into the classroom even when children aren't present, but tries to alleviate those fears.

"We do share with them our buildings are safe," Sallis said. "They are cleaned on a regular basis on a rotational cycle. We have an additional disinfecting schedule. We've improved the air quality. We practice social distancing. It's a requirement everyone in the district wears a mask."

Kerr said she didn't hesitate much when presented with the opportunity to get back into the classroom in DeKalb.

"This has been my life," Kerr said. "I love my job, even though being a sub can be really difficult. You can have horrible days. But I love the kids and this is the place I like to be. Plus with the COVID, I need to get out. I'm a social person. And money too, not that we get paid a lot, but I like to get a paycheck occasionally. I look forward to them being in the classroom again."

Eddie Carifio

Has been the sports editor in DeKalb since 2014.