Some Iowa substitute teachers say they don’t plan on returning to classrooms this fall

Rear view of students sitting with hands raised in classroom
The Iowa teachers' union and the Iowa City Community School District are suing teh stte of Iowa over the governor's attempt to dictate when a school district can move to 100% online classes. (Photo by Getty Images)

Amy Wergin, a longtime substitute teacher in the Des Moines area, says she will not return to the classroom this fall.

The 65-year-old retiree said it was a difficult decision, but her two kids asked her not to go back to work.

“Much of their concern lies in the fact that they fear losing their only remaining parent,” Wergin said, during a Zoom conference call with Iowa State Education Association.

The conference call, which was held on Wednesday, allowed teachers from across the state to share their concerns about returning to school in the fall and Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamation requiring 50% in-person attendance.

Like other educators across Iowa, Wergin said she is concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in schools, particularly as infection rates continue to rise in the state.

She said she does not plan on returning to classrooms until a COVID-19 vaccine is available and she’s worried about the health risks for others who plan on physically attending school in the fall.

“What if these people get sick?” Wergin said. “Will we roll the dice and hope it’s a mild case with no long-term effects?”

Educators from around the state spoke about their fears returning to school during a Zoom meeting with the Iowa State Education Association. (Screenshot of ISEA meeting)

Prior to COVID-19, school districts nationwide have already struggled with substitute teacher shortages, according to the School Superintendents Association. The shortage has risen over the decades, due to increased in-school teacher training, as well as a lack of competitive pay that leaves subs looking for other work.

But with the pandemic, the demand for substitute teachers is expected to rise as school districts prepare for sick absences or teachers leaving the profession altogether. 

A national survey commissioned by Kelly Education shows that prior to COVID-19, schools were able to fill just 54% of the approximately 250,000 teacher absences each day.

But 12% of teachers surveyed said they may leave the education field now, due to the pandemic. 

In Iowa, the governor deepened the pool of available substitute teachers by loosening restrictions.

In her July 17 proclamation, Reynolds suspended requirements that subs must have a bachelor’s degree and she also lowered the age minimum to 20. She also suspended measures that limit the number of days a substitute teacher can work within 30 days. 

“So now instead of an army of well-trained former teachers, what will you have?” Wergin said. “Much of subbing depends on flexibility and the ability to pivot quickly, much like a real teacher.”

Teachers from several school districts said they believe sub shortages will occur in their buildings, particularly since the profession utilizes retired teachers who may be older.

“Most of the older retired teachers have said they’re not coming back. Some of the ones that are younger that sub said they’ll be ready and help out all they can,” said Lesa Benks, an art teacher at North High School in Sioux City.

Maggie Rietz, a teacher at West High School in Davenport, said most of the substitute teachers she utilizes are retired and she doesn’t want to put them at risk by asking them to come into the classroom.

Rietz said with the existing sub shortage, classrooms were sometimes combined in the past. That will be difficult during the pandemic, she said.

“You’re taking kids and putting more kids in a classroom when we’re trying to socially distance,” Rietz said. “Some of those old solutions won’t work.”

Brad Weidenaar, a Marshalltown High School instructional coach, said the school district will be able to fill in short-term absences. But too many long absences and a lack of staff may require schools to close.

“It’s one thing to fill a need for a day. It’s another thing to fill a need for two weeks or longer,” Weidenaar said. “At some point, buildings and school districts will have to make the call. We have too many sick teachers. We can’t teach your kids.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.