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Education

Missouri State Board of Education Lowers The Bar For Substitute Teachers Amid Pandemic Shortage

091219_EM_Pitcher1stgrade.jpg
Elle Moxley
/
KCUR 89.3
First grade students spend time in a third grade classroom at Pitcher Elementary in the Kansas City Public Schools. Pre-COVID, that practice was commonplace when districts couldn't get a substitute, but now it would push classroom capacity beyond social distancing limits.

The state board approved the emergency rule on Tuesday with a 5-2 vote. President Charlie Shields opposed the change, warning the rest of the board it will likely become permanent.

With schools facing an unprecedented need for substitute teachers because of the pandemic, the Missouri State Board of Education has made it easier to get licensed.

“Most of the time, teachers are told, ‘You must come to work however you can come to work,’” Commissioner Margie Vandeven said at Tuesday’s meeting. “But we are asking you if you are sick, stay home.”

So for the next 180 days, anyone with a high school diploma or its equivalent can take a 20-hour online course to become a substitute teacher. Previously, substitutes needed at least 60 hours of college credit to teach in Missouri schools.

Board member Carol Hallquist of Kansas City asked whether the emergency rule was really necessary. She pointed out that Gov. Mike Parson has already loosened the requirements for retired teachers to sub during the pandemic.

Assistant Education Commissioner Paul Katnik replied that most retired teachers are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19 because of their age.

“A good percentage of them said, ‘Not now.’”

Board president Charlie Shields of St. Joseph said he couldn’t support lowering the bar for substitutes under any circumstance. He said changing the requirements, even temporarily, would signal to Missouri students that a high school diploma is enough.

“For as long as I’ve been on this board, we have said that a post-secondary educational experience is important, that we believe no one should stop at high school,” Shields said. “This sends the message that it’s OK to stop at high school, and I’m troubled by that.”

Shields added that even though an emergency rule is temporary, passing it would create pressure to lower expectations permanently since substitute shortages were a problem even before the coronavirus.

But some of the solutions schools used when they couldn’t get a substitute are now off the table, like putting students in other classrooms for the day.

“One of teachers’ biggest concerns is when they’re trying to social distance, if 10 more kids come into their classroom, it’s impossible,” Vandeven said.

Vandeven said teachers are also likely to need a lot more sick days this year if they have to quarantine for 14 days after any possible exposure to COVID-19.

The emergency rule ultimately passed, though Shields and Victor Lenz of St. Louis voted against it. Lenz objected to it on the grounds that 20 hours of substitute teacher training would be virtual.

It’s expected that the state board will revisit the issue of licensing substitute teachers when the emergency rule expires in February.