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For Teachers, Taking A Day Off During Distance Learning Comes With Big Challenges

A teacher guides students through a lesson at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont Mesa on Oct. 13, 2020.
Nicholas McVicker
A teacher guides students through a lesson at Lafayette Elementary School in Clairemont Mesa on Oct. 13, 2020.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Courtney Green has been reluctant to days off from her work as a fourth-grade teacher at Kellogg Elementary in the Chula Vista Elementary School District.

Her feeling is distance learning has already been hard enough on her students without them having to deal with a substitute teacher.

For Teachers, Taking A Day Off During Distance Learning Comes With Big Challenges
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.

But when Green had to take three weeks off for a medical procedure in October, finding someone to fill in proved far more difficult than she thought it would be. That’s been the experience of teachers across the region as they grapple with the challenges of taking time off from their virtual classrooms.

And even after Green found a couple of substitutes, her days off were interrupted by the technical difficulties of virtual learning.

“On my days that I was out on medical leave, I would still have to log onto the computer, set up the class, make the substitute the host, and then log off,” she said.

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In the end, she decided, against her doctor’s wishes, to cut her medical leave short.


“I came back a couple days early just because of how stressful it was,” Green said. “Working with subs and how much work I had to put in, it was basically the same amount as if I had been working.”

Green says she’s heard similar stories from her colleagues.

“They’ve put off taking mental health days or going to doctors appointments because they don’t want to have to figure this out,” she said.

Chula Vista Elementary spokesman Anthony Millican said 96% of teacher absences were filled in the month of October. But he agrees that the current situation is challenging.

“Because of school closures we have far fewer professional development training so in that regard, there’s less of a need for subs,” he said. “But on the flip side, there’s fewer subs generally available during this period.”

A tough time to be a sub

Substitute teachers say 2020 has been a struggle on their end as well. Danielle Brees, a substitute teacher working at West Hills High in the Grossmont Union High School District, said she immediately filed for unemployment when COVID-19 first shut down schools in March.

“I moved from where I was living to a cheaper place kind of because of the pandemic, to be honest. I was pretty much just making ends meet,” Brees said. “Because I’m fully credentialed, I’m still looking for jobs.”

Brees ultimately found work as a long-term substitute for a teacher who’s working from home because he’s at a greater risk of experiencing complications from COVID-19.

Brees goes to campus every day where students learn in a hybrid model. The teacher designs the curriculum and the assignments and Brees works with them in the classroom while they complete their assignments.

“I’ve been trying to help them with their study habits and giving them some examples of how to study and how to use mindfulness apps,” she said.. “I’m doing OK, but it is impacting me a little bit to see them not doing as well as they could be.

Luckily for Brees, Grossmont Union raised the pay for substitutes after COVID-19 hit from $115 per day to $150.

Terry Stanfill, the assistant superintendent of human resources at Grossmont Union High, said the district’s decision to provide more in-person learning meant it had to make an investment in substitutes. So far, he said, the district has been able to meet its need for subs.

“Our sub situation right now is, I’ll say, strained,” Stanfill said. “We felt we need to be competitive in the county and so we raised the daily rate. Others in the county are doing that too to remain competitive.”

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Cajon Valley Union School District, which has more in-person instruction than most districts, also raised its rates for substitutes. But officials there are worried increasing pay might not be sustainable in the long run.

“I refer to it as the perfect storm: a low number of substitutes available and a high need,” said Michelle Hayes, the assistant superintendent of personnel services at Cajon Valley Union. “And I think the East County is competing for the same resources.”

Stanfill worries that the shortage will get worse, and he encouraged local residents with a bachelor’s degree who need employment to consider working as a sub.

“Right now it seems to be OK but there’s always a need for subs, and as other districts begin to open, we might begin to feel more strain,” he said.

Back at Chula Vista Elementary, Green expects that things will improve. But she’s not planning on taking any more time off.

“There’s also some guilt that comes with getting a substitute when teachers know that our students have already gone through so much trauma over these last seven months,” she said. “Just going out for a day to take care of an appointment is going to be even more challenging for our students. “

The rise of COVID-19 cases in San Diego is part of a pattern being seen statewide and that will put increasing strain on the health care system in coming weeks. Meanwhile, San Diego County public health officials reported a record 1,546 COVID-19 infections Tuesday, along with 16 additional deaths. Also, as the pandemic rages, teachers are struggling to get time off due to a shortage of substitute teachers. When more schools open for in-person instruction, school officials say the substitute situation could worsen.