A shortage of substitute teachers continues to challenge Montgomery County Public Schools, with the rate of unfilled requests last month exceeding the average of past years by more than 20 percentage points.

In May, an average of 53% of substitute requests went unfilled each day. May 12 and May 20 tied for the highest rate at 59%, according to data provided to Bethesda Beat by MCPS. The majority of the requests were for teachers who were taking sick days, the data said.

When requests are unfilled, that means teachers who are in the building often have to cover the classes of missing teachers as well as their own.

After a full school year of dealing with the shortage, some teachers say they are burnt out and are concerned about the long-term effects of making sure learning isn’t interrupted for students — who have already lost so much valuable classroom time during the pandemic.

Jess Porrovicchio, a teacher at White Oak Middle School in Silver Spring, said having to cover other classes and thereby losing planning time means gradebooks aren’t up to date and student lessons can’t be modified. Finding time to give thoughtful feedback on work is difficult and proactively reaching out to parents to talk about students’ emotional and academic needs isn’t as feasible.

Teachers need to spend more time focusing on all of those things to help offset the consequences of virtual learning, Porrovicchio said.

“This is the end of my 14th year. It’s the hardest year I have ever had,” she said. “The kids need more than ever, and I am not the best teacher that I used to be. I used to make vocabulary posters for my classroom, I used to regularly log my parent contacts and respond to parents immediately. Now, I am full of anxiety because I am always behind, and not meeting the needs of my students.”

Prior to the pandemic, in the 2018-19 school year only about 12% of substitute requests were not filled each day, according to MCPS data. In the 2017-18 school year, it was about 15%.

The demand for substitutes and lack of availability has been a problem since schools reopened during the pandemic. It’s a national problem, too, but locally, it reached crisis levels during the winter when students returned to classes from winter break.

At that time, so many teachers were out sick, without substitutes to fill in for them, that county leaders questioned if the school district needed to temporarily return to virtual classes. The district as a whole remained open, but the number of unfilled substitute teaching requests is a factor MCPS analyzes when deciding whether an individual school needs to shift to virtual learning.

In October, and several times over the ensuing months, members of the county teachers union protested outside of the school board offices in Rockville. They said the staffing shortages were reaching “dire” levels and, like Porrovicchio says, forced them to give up planning time to cover classes, ultimately affecting students’ learning. When the union in January passed a vote of no confidence in MCPS and Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight, part of the rationale was that the district had not come up with a “viable solution” to the problems.

In the months that followed, MCPS and the teachers union agreed to a modest increase in pay for substitute teachers — between $1 and $2 an hour, depending on the length of the assignment — following the lead of neighboring jurisdictions.

MCPS also started a pilot program in which a pool of substitutes was tabbed to work every “planned school day” through the end of the academic year. The substitutes are assigned to whatever school has the most need on a given day. MCPS told Bethesda Beat this week that 52 substitute teachers participated in the pilot this year.

In January, MCPS leaders told the school board that more than 1,000 people had applied to be substitutes since the start of the school year, and 550 were hired. This week, MCPS told Bethesda Beat that there are 3,557 active substitute teachers in the district.

Headed into the summer, MCPS officials say they will continue to hold recruiting events for substitute teachers.

Without a more comprehensive solution, Porrovicchio said teachers will continue to feel burnt out, and more may leave the system or the profession, exacerbating the problem.

Requests to take leave for personal days, whether it be for family events or medical appointments or mental health breaks, may go unapproved. Staff members can’t attend professional development or training.

Jennifer Martin, president of the teachers union, said in an interview last week that “stop-gap” measures aren’t working.

Martin noted that COVID-19 infection rates have, at times, increased across the district, straining staffing levels. She did not say specifically what measures MCPS should implement to offset the challenges, but said the district should continue to monitor the infection rates and consider what could be done to help lower them. She also said the district should better compensate teachers who have to cover other classes.

“We need to have long-term plans because this problem is not going away,” Martin said of the substitute shortage and also of COVID-19. “We’ve exhausted this topic in a lot of ways. We’ve laid out what the problems are, and the concern of my members is about how we can keep learning happening and that it’s a good experience, and that we have jobs that are manageable so we can do our best.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com