Nothing about the 2020-21 school year was easy, including finding substitute teachers in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
The school district’s pool of available substitutes shrank drastically because many regular substitutes feared contracting COVID-19 or didn’t want to deal with the challenges of virtual teaching. As a result, the district’s rate of filling absences dropped from about 75% for a normal year to 60% for the 2020-21 school year, according to Jevelyn Bonner-Reed, the chief human resources officer for the school district.
To combat that, the school board recently approved a contract with ESS, a substitute-management system that will take over the job of filling teacher absences for the coming school year. Once the new service is in place, the school district hopes to fill more than 90% of its sub requests.
The amount of money the program will cost annually is hard to predict because it is based on the number of subs needed, which fluctuates. But Andrea Gillus, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board that it will budget $1.4 million from federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for the program.
“We didn’t have a super high fill-rate before this so the need was already there. But it’s just been exacerbated by COVID-19,” Bonner-Reed told the school board in April when she first brought up the need for such a group.
Several other school districts have contracted out the work of hiring subs, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Iredell-Statesville Schools, Alamance-Burlington Schools and Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
The 900 or so people in the substitute pool will now contract through ESS. Though the pay rate will stay the same, the company will be able to offer bonuses, some benefits and enticements to maintain and increase its substitute pool.
“They will be paid more frequently than our payroll and be eligible for bonuses that we’re not able to do,” Bonner-Reed said.
Board Member Elisabeth Motsinger initially had concerns about what would happen to the two employees in human resources who help manage the sub program.
Superintendent Tricia McManus said contracting out this service will improve efficiency while freeing up the two employees on Bonner-Reed’s team who work with subs.
Those employees are expected to spend more time on employee wellness programs that could reduce the number of absences.
“This will allow them to go into schools to provide other supports,” McManus said.
Because ESS’ sole focus is recruiting and filling sub requests, Bonner-Reed said the district should be able to drastically improve the sub fill rate. ESS will focus on finding subs in Forsyth County.
During COVID, the need for more substitutes was so great that district leaders, including McManus, filled in for absentee teachers.
Bonner-Reed said the school district is committed to trying the program for three years. If it proves successful, the cost of the program will be folded into the school district’s annual budget.
The school districts pay the minimum pay rate, as set by the state: $80 for non-certified subs and $100 for certified subs.