ASHLAND — During the 2021-2022 school year, a global pandemic, workforce issues, low wages and politics swirled together to create a perfect storm of bus driver and substitute teacher shortages nationwide.
At Ashland Source's Talk the Vote event last fall, community members wondered what Ashland City Schools could do to address this shortage. Are they paying enough? Or are there simply not enough workers?
In the first half of our two-part series on the subject, Ashland Source will be exploring the topic of substitute teachers.
Rick Crooks is a retired teacher who has substituted at Ashland City Schools for 14 years. Before that, he worked at Washington Court House City Schools for nine years and at Crestview Local Schools for 26 years as a full-time teacher.
For him, substitute teaching is a way to earn some money and continue working in education without the hassle of being a full-time teacher, Crooks said.
"I still have it in me to get up and go to school most days. But it's so much different because you don't have to grade papers, you don't have to plan. I did that for 35 years so I really don't want to do that anymore," he said.
Crooks earns a base pay rate of $85 per day for his substitute teaching, an amount that he called "pitiful."
"You take 85 and divide it by, if you leave the house at 7 and get home at 3, that's eight hours, you're looking at a little over $10 an hour. And you can make $14, $15 working at McDonald's," Crooks said.
Currently, Ashland City School's base pay rate for substitute teachers is $85 per day. From there, substitutes will earn $90 per day after 10 consecutive days in the same classroom. Ten days after that, they'll earn $95 a day. And finally, after 60 days they will earn the same as a first year teacher, which is $184.63 per day.
Crooks pointed out other school districts like Shelby Local Schools and Ontario Local Schools in Richland County, where subs can make $115 and $100 per day, respectively.
But every school district in Ashland County pays $85 per day, which is partially why the board of education chose that amount, Ashland City Schools business manager Steve Paramore said.
"Our board of education looks at that rate every year and it's a decision that they ultimately make with a lot of analysis. They just don't make it on a whim," Paramore said.
Crooks, who said he knows Supt. Doug Marrah, hopes that Marrah will work to increase pay for substitute teachers as one of his final acts in the district before he retires at the end of the year.
The last time Ashland substitute teachers received a raise was in 2021, when the day rate was raised from $80 to $85.
"The $5 increase they made from the year before, to me was an insult. Five dollars?" he said.
While Crooks and the district administration may disagree when it comes to wages, they both agree on one thing: The available workforce of substitute teachers has shrunk.
Paramore identified two demographics that many substitute teachers come from: recently graduated college students who studied education, and retired teachers.
But during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard getting those people into the classroom, Paramore said.
"I would say that Ohio statewide there are not as many people signing up to be substitute teachers," Paramore said. "Whether that was the pandemic, you know, it wasn't super enticing for people to go sub in a classroom with 25 kids if they were worried about the spread of a virus."
On top of concerns about possible illness, Crooks believes the pandemic increased teachers' workloads with online and in-person learning, further dissuading prospective substitutes.
The Ohio Statehouse attempted to address this shortage by allowing anyone with a bachelor's degree and a clean criminal record to become a substitute teacher starting in 2021. But Paramore and Crooks both think this solution may not be enough.
"You don't necessarily have people graduating from college with a business degree saying, 'Well, I can't find anything in the business world so I'm gonna go substitute teach,'" Paramore said.
"I would not do that, go into a school, without any previous teaching experience. I wouldn't feel comfortable, but maybe somebody does," Crooks said.
In a recent press release, the Ohio Education Association attributed the shortage of educators primarily to low wages.
Teachers in Ohio are paid 14.4% less than people with similar levels of education and experience, according to the release. From 1996 to 2021, teachers' wages have increased by only $29 while wages for other college graduates increased by $445.
"This report should set off huge alarm bells for policy makers at every level. We are at a tipping point,” OEA president Scott DiMauro said in the release.
“Without significant action right now to address the pay disparities for teachers and the other major issues contributing to staffing shortages, our schools are not going to be able to maintain the workforce levels needed to deliver the world-class education every student deserves."
For the upcoming school year, Ashland City Schools is "100 percent filled," Paramore said.
"Now, that doesn't mean that folks won't get sick, folks won't take personal leave, teachers are absent on any given day," he said.
Ashland City Schools draws its substitutes from three different entities: the Tri-County Education Service Center, a district substitute list, and the Mid-Ohio Education Service Center.
While Ashland City Schools has made do with their existing sub pools, some larger cities like Cincinnati have had to ramp up recruitment to fill their classrooms.
Schools in and around Cincinnati faced a massive shortage of teachers and substitutes in January when the Omicron wave of COVID-19 swept through. Only around 65% of vacant teacher spots were filled by substitutes, according to a story by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Schools and the Hamilton County Education Service Center pushed to recruit new substitutes, and so far they have recruited 875 new subs this year, including 100 student-teachers who recently completed their placements.
Ashland's Tri-County Education Service Center also recruits subs, but currently it's only searching for substitute teachers for Loudonville-Perrysville schools, according to its website.
Ashland City Schools also had dedicated substitute teachers who continued to work during the pandemic while substitutes elsewhere were balking at classrooms, Paramore said.
One of these dedicated substitute teachers was Rick Crooks, who continued to work during the heights of COVID-19.
"I did 134 days last year and it was in the 120s the previous years. I was fortunate, my health has always been fairly good. I thought hopefully my immune system was up to it," Crooks said.
In the next part of this series, Ashland Source will be exploring the workforce and the wages for bus drivers at Ashland City Schools.