WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Palm Beach County schools are in desperate need of substitute teachers. With surging COVID-19 cases and quarantines on top of regular absences, schools don't have enough subs to cover all of the teachers who are out.
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After retiring from a long career in education, Alison Donlon said there was no doubt her next chapter would bring her back to the classroom as a substitute teacher.
"When the kids see you even one day, they say, are you coming back? When are you coming back? Can you be my teacher?" Donlon said. "They are just so wonderful. Kids are great and they really appreciate it."
Donlon found her second home at Lake Park Elementary School, right now filling in for the media specialist who is on maternity leave.
"The kids really need us and you are an extension of the teacher. You carry on the teacher's instruction program, the standards and expectations," Donlon said. "It's a flexible job. You can choose what days you want to work, what schools you want to work in."
"Substitutes are part of the backbone of the school," said Lake Park Elementary School Principal Philip Preddy.
Preddy said they need more substitutes like Donlon as schools try to balance extra holes to fill from COVID-19, on top of regular teacher absences.
"I will be on the phone in the car in the morning making some deals if we do not have substitutes to cover, trying to get other teachers to help me to fill the void or other staff members on campus," Preddy said. "They not only go in there and are the adult in the room, but are also keeping that high quality instruction going."
"Our schools are in dire need," said Gail Williams, who's in charge of finding substitute teachers in the School District of Palm Beach County.
Williams said that of the school district's pool of 3,000 potential substitute teachers, only about 1,100 are willing to work right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We surveyed all of our substitute teachers and the ones that did respond and weren’t coming back, it was because of concern of the pandemic," Williams said. "Due to COVID and the fear and not knowing."
Williams added that anyone concerned about COVID-19 should speak directly to school principals to learn more about the school atmosphere.
"When you go out to the schools and you see how excited the children are to finally be back in an environment where they can be back with their friends and in school together and see each other, that just outweighs everything. So how do you support that as a person who is thinking about subbing? That's a great, great thing you can do if you are willing to come out to our schools and become a sub," Williams said. "I know some people are concerned, but once they get to know the school, the staff there and the principal, the assistant principal, the administrators, they embrace you and help you to know you are going to be as safe as we can possibly keep it for you. A day in the life of a teacher and a substitute teacher is so important to our students. One full year of a child's education is taught by a substitute teacher. So our community, anybody who is listening right now, you are so important if you are interested in taking care of our students when we don't have a teacher in the classroom. You are the teacher for the day, so we embrace you. So please apply for the jobs. We need you."
To help the situation, the Palm Beach County School Board recently approved a pay raise for substitutes. It's an extra dollar an hour for most teachers and $3 an hour for those filling in at high-needs schools.
With the new pay raise, the rate for Palm Beach County substitute teachers ranges from $12.33 to $14.91 per hour based on experience and education level, with an extra $3 an hour in schools designated as "high needs" for subs.
"I think that's helping to boost the morale and make people be more willing to go out and be a substitute teacher. So it's helped tremendously," Williams said.
Donlon said the COVID atmosphere doesn't phase her.
"I'm not scared. I'm never worried," Donlon said. "We're all masking, we're keeping distance. The students are far apart and really, no, I'm never worried about that."
Donlon added she's more focused on the difference she knows she can make in these children's lives.
"You are really helping the kids and that's what its all about. They really need us," Donlon said.
The School District of Palm Beach County has about 100 subs going through the hiring process now, but they need more.
To learn about the qualifications of being a substitute teacher, along with the application process, click here.
To see a list of the high-needs, high-paying schools in Palm Beach County, click here.
NOW HIRING 📣 A flexible work schedule and a recent starting pay raise are just two reasons to become a substitute teacher in Palm Beach County. A current substitute shares a few of the other reasons why she loves her job. Apply now: https://t.co/xkbR5JCUkJ pic.twitter.com/peYQD051P3— The School District of Palm Beach County (@pbcsd) August 30, 2021
In Martin County, substitute teachers make $86.25 to $112.50 per day.
St Lucie County pays $71 to $100 per day, and Okeechobee County School District substitutes can expect to earn $11.50 to $13.50 per hour. Information for Indian River County was not immediately available.
Martin County school leaders also said they have a critical need for subs. For information on becoming a substitute teacher in Martin County, click here.
St. Lucie Public Schools will host an informational session on Sept. 24 for people interested in becoming teachers or subs. For more details, click here.
For information in Okeechobee County, click here. Indian River County subs can click here.