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We introduced Legislative Resolution (LR) 130: an Education Committee study to examine issues related to the use and availability of substitute teachers.
Last year, Senator Erdman’s LB568 in the Education Committee and Senator Kolterman’s LB415 in the Retirement Committee brought to our attention policy issues concerning substitute teachers in our state’s public-schools.
When introducing LR130, I started with the premise that teachers want to teach and they take pride in their classroom results. They would prefer to be in the classroom! Therefore, the questions we posed were: 1) what can we do to maximize teachers’ time in the classroom? 2) What policies can we pursue to assure that there is smooth transition in the classroom from teacher to substitute? 3) Could policy changes help lower last year’s $35 million statewide cost for substitute teacher?
Believing that the real-life experiences of local school superintendents were the best source of background information, we sent out a questionnaire to all 244 school district superintendents. Response was good. At the hearing, we invited testimony from school organizations: Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA), Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA), Educational Service Units (ESUs), Nebraska Association of School Boards (NASB), and the Department of Education (NDE).
When asked how many days teachers are absent from the classroom, the answer was on average 10.5 to 12 days. Considering many teachers prefer to be in their classrooms, the average was unexpectedly high. A school official who testified stated that the total days a public school student is taught by substitute teachers is equivalent to one of their 13 years in public school.
Life does happen and as expected, illness and the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (up to 12 weeks) accounted for over 50% of the absence from the classroom.
Other major reasons were: continued education requirements for certified teachers for professional development and training for state mandates on assessments, curriculum, student testing, school safety, and standard reviews. Also attributed were new training requirements for numerous state edicts, as examples; suicide awareness, bullying prevention, date rape prevention, restraint and seclusion, and concussion protocol.
The trend towards teacher contracts allowing for personal days instead of strictly sick leave and family emergencies was also mentioned as a reason for increased teacher absences.
When asked if NSAA high school activities were a major factor for demand of substitute teachers, the answer was no: those events are mostly scheduled around school days. Some isolated rural districts were affected by travel time to events. Also mentioned were, an increase in junior high activities and all-day club activities of Future Farmers of America (FFA) and Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA).
We discovered that after allowing for the expected 5-6 days of illness and family leave, the question remained of how can we keep teachers in the classroom the other 5-6 days they are now absent? Scheduling training days by ESUs and the NDE during non-classroom times seems to be the quick answer. That answer may mean adding more non-classroom days to employee contracts or simply scheduling training during the summer interim. A consideration of moving away from the trend of giving paid personal days in contracts and instead returning to a policy of allowing for administrator approved paid absences may be another answer.
With that said, for the immediate future we still need to find ways to expand the pool of available substitute teachers. Most of the responders to our survey said allowing recently retired teachers the ability to substitute immediately would help immensely; the stickler is, the IRS requires a bona fide separation from like employment when retirement is drawn. State law defines separation for public school teachers as 180 days. NDE did attempt to address the problem this year by increasing the number of days a local substitute can teach from 45 to 90. To be a local substitute, one must have at least 60 credit hours of higher education including an hour of an approved human relations course. It was suggested that 120 days should be considered.
If you have inkling to teach, check with your school, you may qualify to substitute teach.