Teacher Crystal Magee, center, welcomes a student to her classroom at Richmond Elementary. Local schools have increasingly struggled to find enough substitute teachers to cover classes. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Christy Perry was back in the classroom Monday, teaching a math lesson to first grade students at Harritt Elementary School.

Perry, the superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District, often stops by schools for events or special occasions.

But her return to teaching Monday was a first this school year and reflects a larger staffing challenge district leaders fear will worsen as the omicron surge keeps more employees home sick.

On Jan. 7, 236 teachers and other licensed district employees requested substitutes to cover for them, according to district data obtained by Salem Reporter. That's more than 10% of the roughly 2,000 teachers employed by the district, Of those absences, just over half - 126 - were covered by substitutes.

“It’s not just one thing. It’s everything compounding to bigger issues,” said Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, the union representing district teachers. “We have fewer subs. We had started off the year with unfilled positions and now people are in and out because of sickness and so forth.”

Prior to winter break, the district was already relying on school principals, teacher mentors and other employees with teaching licenses to cover classes when staff are sick or otherwise absent.

In middle and high schools, teachers are routinely asked to cover classes during their prep periods, time that’s supposed to be set aside for lesson planning. Scialo-Lakeberg said she’s even covered some classes along with mentors and other district-level workers.

“We’ve been somehow trying to survive with the minimum, but I can say that most of our members are beyond the point of exhaustion even after coming back from break,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

The week of Jan. 4, the district recorded 30 school employees with Covid - the highest one-week total since classes began this school year, according to a weekly district dashboard. The dashboard only includes cases where a school employee was at school when they had Covid, and wouldn’t reflect educators who, for example, got sick over winter break and are now at home recovering.

This week, administrators from the district office are taking their turn to fill in for staff who are out.

“We have more staff and students that are out sick. It’s just difficult to cover sometimes,” said Olga Cobb, assistant superintendent, speaking about the first week of school in January.

Perry said she covered the classroom from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to help the school’s counselor, who had been filling in for an absent teacher. With the school principal also out, her lesson gave the counselor a brief break to attend to his regular job.

Two Portland high schools closed Friday and shifted classes online temporarily, with district leaders saying in the midst of the omicron surge and higher rates of student and staff illness, they didn’t have enough employees to keep schools open in-person.

Salem has so far avoided school closures due to staff shortages and Covid cases, though some individual classrooms have moved online temporarily this year because of Covid outbreaks.

Keeping schools open in-person remains the goal, said Cobb. But doing so will be a challenge in a year when schools routinely struggle to find substitute teachers to cover classes.

Before winter break, district teachers were requesting substitutes to cover classes about 2,000 times per month, district data shows.

The number of requests varies substantially month to month depending on the timing of school breaks. The number of requests for subs this fall is the same or lower than for the same months in 2018 and 2019, before the pandemic.

What’s changed is the fill rate - how often a teacher who requests a substitute actually gets one. Pre-pandemic, 93% or more of requests were covered by substitutes, district data shows.

So far this school year, it’s been between 67% and 77% per month.

Brian Turner, the district’s director of recruitment and staffing, said there are multiple reasons for the shortage.

The district now has about 475 substitute teachers in its system who are notified of job openings daily, he said.

That’s about the same number as before the pandemic, but a larger share aren’t actively working. Typically, about 130 will fill in on a given day.

When schools moved online, sub requests fell dramatically, and many substitute teachers found other jobs with more steady pay.

Many long-time substitutes are retired teachers who are older and at higher risk from Covid and don’t want to work in-person, Turner said. Some don’t want to be vaccinated against Covid, a state requirement for school employees.

And many working substitutes are already in classrooms, taking long-term substitute roles to cover vacant jobs.

Substitute teachers for Salem-Keizer now earn $29.64 per hour, up from about $24 in 2018. And state changes to licensing rules allow districts to apply for an emergency substitute teacher license for just about any adult, provided they can pass a background check. Those licenses are good for six months.

Salem-Keizer now has 60 substitutes working under an emergency license, Turner said, with 21 more in the process of getting a license. An orientation for substitutes this week has another 50 people signed up.

Cobb said district administrators are doing everything they can to avoid closing schools.

Sometimes, that’s meant combining classes for a day when student attendance is low and a classroom teacher is out.

Administrators and the human resources department daily review substitute requests to plan for the coming day, figuring out where they need to send additional employees to help cover teacher absences..

A rotating schedule helps ensure district workers aren’t pulled away from their other duties all week, though Cobb said some work, like planning for teacher professional development, has taken a backseat as administrators cover classrooms.

“Everyone is helping us one or two days a week to make sure that we make it,” she said.

Cobb said she’s hopeful the effort will be enough to keep schools open even if the number of employees and students out sick rises.

“I wish I knew. I don’t know,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!