Photo by Valerie Fang of Richard Montgomery High School

Irene Kimelblatt is a familiar face at Walter Johnson High School, where she has served as a substitute teacher for nearly 20 years. Known as Ms. K to her students, Kimelblatt is a retired English teacher who enjoys substituting for classes and being back with students. She loves the moment when students see her in the hallway and run up to give her a hug, calling out, “Ms. K’s back!” 

Last year, Kimelblatt did not do much substitute teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic and virtual learning. But this year, as students return to in-person classes, her current schedule is almost entirely full. “There were only two school days in October that I didn’t sub,” Kimelblatt said. Her schedule in the following months is quickly filling up, with even several days already booked in January 2022. 

As public schools around Montgomery County face a shortage of substitutes, those like Kimelblatt who are willing to pick up teaching jobs are getting multiple requests each day and frequently showing up at school to cover different classes. 

“Each night, my phone rings constantly. I would say I get offers at least ten times [each night],” Kimelblatt said. Due to her full schedule, she almost always has to turn down the offers. 

Normally, when teachers are not available for their class, they file their absence ahead of time in the Substitute Employment Management System (SEMS), which would then reach out to substitutes in the database. However, this process has become more difficult than it was before the pandemic.

“Substitutes are not picking up open jobs at the same rate as they were pre-pandemic,” Director of the MCPS Department of Communications Chris Cram said. 

Other methods that schools previously relied on are also becoming less effective. “Teachers have a bucket of subs, like three or four people, that they could contact,” Farmland Elementary School Principal April Longest said. “But it has been more challenging to get coverage for teachers in this new school year.”

As the need for substitutes remains unmet, schools must find other staff members in the building to supervise students, such as teachers with a free period, staff development teachers, or the principal and assistant principals themselves. 

However, filling these gaps takes the replacement staff’s time away from doing their own work. “For example, if our staff development teacher has to cover a class, then she might not be supporting teachers in their planning,” Longest said. 

To increase the number of available substitute teachers, MCPS has decided to adjust the education requirement to expand the pool of job candidates. “We have lowered the requirement from a bachelor’s degree to an associate’s degree or 60+ college credits. Principals are sharing this information with the PTA to put it out to parents and the public,” Cram said. In addition, MCPS is actively recruiting candidates using their bi-weekly job fairs. They are partnering with principals and the Montgomery County Council of PTAs (MCCPTA) to share updated recruitment flyers with families.  

At the school level, principals have been working hard to boost access to potential substitutes. “I’ve reached out to our staffer, somebody we can work with to staff our schools. She was able to get me a list of approved substitutes in Montgomery County,” Longest said. “Sometimes it’s fruitful, sometimes it’s not. We just do the best we can and keep trying to see if somebody can fill the spots.”

To overcome the challenge of the shortage of substitute teachers, school staff and available substitute teachers are going beyond their routine work to ensure quality education for students. 

Kimelblatt, who has two free periods in a school day, always uses them to help in any way that she can. “I always volunteer to help in the office or the departments and ask if there’s something I can do,” she said. “Helping people makes me feel good.”

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