MISSOULA — Monday marked the end of winter break for most western Montana school districts.
The first four months of the school year have seen a shortage of substitute teachers, with schools scrambling to fill holes where they can. MTN News checked in with two Missoula County school districts to see how they have managed to make it work.
Finding enough substitute teachers to cover classes can be tough enough during normal times for many school districts, and it has been made much tougher during the current COVID-19 pandemic. This can be especially true for rural schools.
“Folks are a little more reluctant to get into the school setting where we’ve got a bunch of kids and a bunch of staff in fairly close quarters,” Lolo School Superintendent Dale Olinger said.
Hellgate Elementary School District Superintendent Doug Reisig agrees with that assessment, "it has been a challenge for us this year in making sure that we have found people willing to step into those roles.”
Olinger says that while the combination of a limited pool of substitute teachers -- and more need among school systems across the board -- can make the task of filling their needs even more daunting.
But he doesn’t believe competition is a big issue. However, even a recent increase in substitute teacher wages hasn’t always done the trick.
“Our school board, as it turns out, raised the substitute rate pretty significantly here in Lolo just before the pandemic occurred,” Olinger told MTN News.
The Hellgate district received a big boost right at the beginning of the school year when the board approved several new COVID-19 para-professional positions.
“We started off with four extra people and expanded it to six and they are individuals that show up every day and they’re flexible,” Reisig said.
“Some days they are working with special ed children, some days regular ed children, some days with food service, some days they are helping us on the playground, and it’s really been a big help to us,” Reisig added.
Even with the built-in staffing -- and increased pay -- these schools can’t always find enough substitutes to fill out all the classes.
It’s those days when superintendents Olinger and Reisig say their staffs step up the most.
“Our Administrative Assistants will jump in and sub,” Olinger said. “We’ve had a whole team of administrators cover the cafeteria for eleven days, it’s one of those things where everybody chips in.”
“There have been some days where we just haven’t been able to staff all the programs, but we have made it a priority to make sure that math, science, English, Social Studies have been staffed every day,” Reisig told MTN News.
Olinger and Reisig said they are extremely thankful for all those who have helped during the first few months and know they wouldn't be where they are now without that help.