Fourth grade teacher Noelle Kirkman works with a small group of students Oct. 13 at Garfield Elementary in Kansas City.
Fourth grade teacher Noelle Kirkman works with a small group of students Oct. 13 at Garfield Elementary in Kansas City. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

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Missouri’s substitute teacher shortage has only gotten worse during the pandemic. 

Just last week, the Park Hill School District, based in northern Kansas City, canceled classes Thursday and Friday due to staffing shortages. 

Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that statewide, school districts are lucky if they can fill about 50% of their vacancies, with some rates plunging as low as 25% to 30%. 

Keith Elliott, a spokesperson for staffing company Kelly Education, said recently that there are about 1,500 teacher absences each day in the nine Kansas City-area districts the company serves. Eight of those districts are in Missouri, and they include major districts such as Lee’s Summit, North Kansas City, Liberty and Kansas City Public Schools. 

January teacher absences were higher amid the COVID spike caused by the omicron variant, he said. The vacancy rates in January have gone up about 40% to 50% from December. 

Typically, Elliott said the company can send substitute teachers to fill about 60% to 70% of those vacancies each day. 

“I have people that have been here 30 years telling me that it’s the hardest that they’ve ever seen,” Elliott said. 

In addition to teachers getting sick or taking extra precautions, Elliott said the profession is facing increased competition from employers like grocery stores and warehouses, which are raising wages. 

And the retired teachers who make up a large part of the normal substitute teacher pool may be especially reluctant to teach because older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

“We still have some of our retired subs that are telling us, ‘Hey, I’m still coming back, I’m just not coming back yet,’” Elliott said. 

Many potential substitute teachers also disagree with the level of COVID precautions districts take, whether they are upset that they have to wear a mask or that a school isn’t requiring them, Elliott said. 

On the state level, DESE has changed requirements to make it easier for people to serve as substitute teachers and has promoted the changes on social media and through interviews with news outlets. 

“It seems as though things are trending in a positive direction, to where things may not be so dire, but there is still a shortage and I would really encourage anyone who may be interested in becoming a substitute to do so or anyone who holds an active substitute teaching certificate to put that to use if they’re able,” McGowin said. 

If you’re interested in answering that call in Missouri, here’s how. Visit The Wichita Beacon to learn how to become a substitute teacher in Kansas

Who is eligible to be a substitute teacher in Missouri? 

If you have 60 college credits — or a high school diploma plus a 20-hour training — can pass a criminal background check, and can afford the fees to go through the process, you have a good shot at becoming certified as a substitute teacher. 

How much do substitute teachers pay to get certified?

There’s a fee of $50 to apply for a certificate. There’s also a separate background check fee of $41.75.

If you don’t have 60 college credits, you’ll also need to pay $180 before tax to take a 20-hour course. Elliott said Kelly Education occasionally has promotions where it offers to reimburse new substitute teachers who take the course. 

Who would be good candidates for substitute teaching?

If you enjoy working with children and would like to help schools stay open during difficult times, you might be a good fit. You might also find the job appealing if you prefer a flexible schedule but want to earn some income.

What will my schedule be like?

Elliott said a major perk of substitute teaching is that you have a lot of options when it comes to your schedule. 

You can decide if you want to limit your hours, avoid certain weekdays or take time off. 

For example, Kelly Education has an online platform where substitute teachers pick out assignments or indicate they are open to requests to work on specific days. Staff members also field requests for help finding specific types of assignments. 

You can also work full time because there are more vacancies each day than schools can fill. 

Elliott said that substitute teachers who work a lot of hours through Kelly Education can become eligible for health insurance. 

If you’re a former full-time teacher or have a lot of experience substitute teaching, you can work as a long-term substitute, covering for a teacher who is on maternity leave or who quit during the school year. 

But even if you’re just getting started and want a series of short assignments where you don’t have to worry about grading or lesson plans, you could still work full-time hours. 

Elliott said a lack of experience shouldn’t deter people who might be interested in the job. 

“If you’re willing to help support the community, we can certainly train you up and teach you to get into those roles,” he said. 

How much do substitute teachers get paid?

Each district sets its own rates. 

Elliott said the range for a daily substitute in the Kansas City area is about $100 to $135. 

Long-term substitutes can make more, as much as $160 per day, in recognition that they will be doing some planning and grading outside of school hours. Each district decides how many days or weeks an assignment has to be to qualify as long-term. 

What do I have to do to apply for a certification in Missouri? 

There are several main steps to apply:

  • Fill out an online application with basic personal information.  
  • Complete a background check and fingerprinting.  
  • Prove you have the required education or training. 

You have options to fulfill the last requirement. 

If you take the traditional path, you must have at least 60 college credits — usually the equivalent of about four semesters of full-time school — and submit all of your higher education transcripts to prove it. The credits don’t have to be related to education. 

Under a new method DESE pioneered and then made permanent during the pandemic, anyone with a high school diploma can take a 20-hour course through Frontline Education.

McGowin said the course has been successful because it focuses on skills substitute teachers actually need for the classroom, whereas college credits may not prepare people to teach. 

About 6,000 people have taken the course so far and just over 3,000 have gone on to complete their certification, she said.  

The above requirements count for most substitute teachers, from elementary through high school, but there’s also a separate set of requirements for those who want to substitute in a career or vocational program. 

In that case, substitutes need either:

  • A bachelor’s degree in an appropriate area plus 4,000 hours of approved and relevant job experience;
  • An associate degree in an appropriate area plus 5,000 hours of approved and relevant job experience; or
  • 6,000 hours of approved and relevant job experience.

How long will the process take?

McGowin said that once DESE receives a prospective teacher’s complete application, including background check results, it only takes a day or two to process. 

However, you might have to allow several weeks for your background check to return, as well as allowing for any time needed to send transcripts by mail or electronically through the National Student Clearinghouse. (You can’t scan, fax, photocopy or email your transcripts.)

What if I already have a valid Missouri teaching certificate? 

If you already have a different kind of teaching certificate, and it isn’t expired, you can start substitute teaching without applying for a separate substitute license. 

What if I want to renew my substitute teacher certificate? 

If you want to renew a substitute certificate that is expired or near expiring, you must complete the application again, pay the $50 fee and verify that you have the correct transcripts on file.

If you haven’t worked as a substitute during the past school year, you’ll need a new background check. If you have, there’s a process for the school to verify your experience. 

Why might my substitute teacher application be denied? 

Your application could be denied if you have felonies or crimes of moral turpitude on your record. 

McGowin said the facts and circumstances of the case can be taken into consideration.

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.