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‘We Need Reinforcements:’ BHS Reacts to Lack of Substitutes

Schools nationwide are struggling with a severe shortage of substitute teachers, and Berkeley High School (BHS) is no exception.


Low pay, COVID-19 risk, licensing barriers, and the difficulty of the substitute teaching job all mean that fewer and fewer people are applying for substitute positions. Unfortunately, schools need substitutes now more than ever to cover teacher absences related to COVID-19. 

Devon Brewer, Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) and Communications Arts and Sciences (CAS) science teacher, said the COVID-19 pandemic compounds with other factors and is driving the current substitute teacher shortage. 

“With [COVID-19], a pandemic, and 3,200 kids in one place, I don’t think it’s that desirable of a position,” said Brewer. “Subbing is a tough job; it’s confusing, it’s a big place, there’s a lot going on at the high school.” 

Hasmig Minassian, Universal Ninth Grade (U9) Ethnic Studies teacher, said that low substitute pay also contributes to the substitute shortage. While Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) did increase the starting rate for substitute teaching from $184 per day to $225 per day, Minassian said that the pay is not comparable to that of other available jobs.

The reasons for teacher absences vary. Some are due to close contact with a COVID-19-positive individual; others have young children who have COVID-19 or have been exposed to it. Teachers may also stay home when they have COVID-19 symptoms themselves. 

Vice Principal Tonia Coleman told the Jacket that the number of COVID-19 related teacher absences is classified. 

Stress related illnesses are also keeping teachers home in greater numbers. 

“I think because the work environment is much more stressful, people are going to have more physical ailments that keep them home,” said Minassian. “I know the first couple weeks of school, there are teachers home with migraines and other stress injuries that I would assume are directly related to the stress of the job,” Minassian said. 

To be eligible to work in BUSD, substitutes have to apply for a 30-day sub credential through the state of California, but COVID-19 has delayed the process. Substitutes are slowly getting their credentials and are now eligible to work in BUSD, but during the beginning of the year they were few and far between. 

Teachers get paid an hourly wage to substitute teach, so many teachers do so during their prep periods.

Minassian said she feels a moral obligation to try and repair the instability caused by a lack of teachers and subs. 

“[COVID-19] is happening to all of us,” Minassian said. “If there’s something that I can do to ease that stress a little bit for that teacher who has to be out or for that student who has a third sub for the day, or for that administrator who’s looking for another person to be able to fill a class, I would like to be able to help,” Minassian said. 

However, teachers are feeling the consequences of substituting for their colleagues during their prep periods, which are normally used for teaching preparation and class planning. 

Having teachers act as substitutes is unsustainable, according to Minassian. “Teachers are going to get tired and burned out, and administrators are going to continue to have their frustrations. We need reinforcements soon. As for now, most of us that are subbing are treating it as an emergency operation, and not something that we can do day in and day out for 180 days,” said Minassian. 

Coleman did say that starting September 13, BHS has two full-time and site-specific subs to support classes that are not covered. 

“Increasing pay and creating an easier onboarding process for those eligible to sub” are the most effective steps that can be taken, said Coleman.

Despite the stress of the substitute shortage, Brewer said that being back at in-person school is rewarding. 

“I’m really enjoying being back at school, and loving it so much more than Zoom school,” said Brewer. “While the substitute teacher shortage is certainly a challenge, it doesn’t make me feel like this would all be easier if we were doing Zoom school. It’s a challenge worth surmounting.”