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Once mocked for handing out worksheets and showing videos to inattentive students, substitute teachers are now a hot commodity.

A dearth of teachers exacerbated by the pandemic has neighboring New Jersey school districts outbidding one another for their services. While many North Jersey school districts have paid substitute teachers about $100 per day in recent years, Wayne Public Schools and others are now offering as much as $250 per day for certified substitute teachers willing to take on a long-term role. 

"We see districts that are basically outbidding the districts around them," said Karen Bingert, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. 

The competition is disconcerting but expected and unavoidable, said Bingert, who is among a growing number of people advocating for expediting and incentivizing substitute teacher certifications.

Along with school bus drivers, substitute teachers were highly sought even before the pandemic, Bingert said. The situation has worsened. School officials have responded by offering higher salaries and bonuses using American Rescue Plan funds to entice New Jersey's pool of roughly 18,440 substitute teachers. Meanwhile, politicians have pushed for an examination of pay structures and relaxed regulations to open the candidate pool.

In an attempt to address the void, New Jersey legislators adopted a bill in mid-2021 allowing college enrollees to obtain a substitute credential with as few as 30 semester-hour credits. Criticized for lowering the previous 60-hour bar for classroom instructors, the bill was followed by one that would have permitted school districts to hire employees from neighboring states. Steven Oroho, the new state Senate minority leader, sponsored the bill that would have allowed school districts to hire out-of-state staff and grandfather them in over a three-year period.

A former substitute teacher, whose district borders New York and Pennsylvania, Oroho said he plans to bring the bill back in 2022 to provide short-staffed schools a larger pool of qualified candidates. Pennsylvania has more strict substitute certification requirements and may offer candidates to New Jersey schools seeking temporary staff.

Still, the shortage is not limited to New Jersey. While opening the borders is a wise move, said Bingert, it is an imperfect solution. There is a nationwide dearth of teachers willing to enter classrooms and more retirements are expected this year. Alternative certifications may be needed to find capable instructors for the next decade or more, Bingert said.

"There is a need to take a look at some of the certification requirements," she said. "But we need to be very cautious about this, because we want great teachers working with our kids."

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The process to be a certified substitute

To become a certified substitute in New Jersey, candidates must have the requisite 30 semester-hour credits. They must also have a school district or other sponsor organization request their criminal history record clearance. Third parties, such as Source4Teachers or Kelly Education, that work to amass and place substitutes at multiple districts operate in this space.

Denise Ridenour, a spokesperson for Kelly Education, said her organization is not exempt from the staff shortage. The agency relies on recent retirees and parents of school-age students, and both groups have been less apt to enter a classroom setting amid the pandemic, she said.

Once a sponsor requests clearance, the administrative fees begin. The New Jersey Department of Education charges $11 to gain clearance and print out the fingerprinting form. Another $76 is required to obtain first-time fingerprinting. Once the criminal history and fingerprints are verified, the state charges a $125 application fee for a substitute credential. Candidates then get a tracking number they submit along with proof of age, the approved criminal history status check and college transcripts, which may require a separate fee.

The process can take eight to 10 weeks, state colleges warn qualifying students on educational tracks.

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Nicola Soares, Kelly Education's president, said the certification process can be extremely technical. Still, those seeking to gain employment in the field are often unperturbed by the certification process and the students are better for their passion.

"Folks that want to be in the classroom, they are purpose-driven to do so," Soares said.

Oroho said he is nonetheless interested in examining ways to streamline the certification process for substitute teachers while retaining a strict background check process.

The understaffing pressure

During a Jan. 6 meeting of the state Senate Education Committee, officials from representative associations throughout the state described a newfound pressure stemming from understaffing. From principals teaching classes to business administrators sanitizing desks, many public school employees have been asked to take on more responsibility, they said.

"We're all feeling the stress and the strain," said Susan Young, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials.

Soares said the pandemic increased rates of attrition that had already begun to complicate staffing in schools. Non-compliance with vaccination mandates and a general aversion to public settings led some to leave.

Moreover, many substitute teachers found it difficult to adapt to a virtual environment, Soares said. Raising pay or offering daily bonuses for what she called a "front-line service" is likely necessary, she said. Low wages are a barrier to entry, she added.

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What is the solution?

"The more we can do to drive the wages to be commensurate with the value of the work is going to be important," Soares said. 

Oroho and others also mentioned similar concerns about school bus drivers, an occupational sector that may soon see some regulatory relief. It has already seen similar salary increases, with South Orange offering $35 an hour.

On Jan. 4, U.S. Department of Transportation officials announced they would give states the option of waiving the portion of the commercial driver’s license (CDL) exams that tests one's knowledge of “under the hood” engine components. The waiver applies only to intrastate school bus drivers and expires on March 31. It came in direct response to claims from "educators and parents that labor shortages, particularly of bus drivers, are a roadblock to keeping kids in schools," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. 

The waiver is surely worth pursuing, Young told the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 6.

She, Bingert and Oroho have described the "under the hood" test as a significant impediment for prospective bus drivers. Oroho said drivers should be able to inspect vehicles for faults that could lead to unsafe operation. Still, with the complexity of modern vehicles and readily dispatchable mechanics to deal with any breakdowns, the test seems like overkill, he said. 

"I know a lot about cars and trucks ... and I don't think I could pass that test," Oroho said.

David Zimmer is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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