The Janesville School District is raising its pay rate for substitute teachers as schools struggle to cover teacher absences during the pandemic.

Under the new rates, substitute teachers will be paid $140 per day, or $17.50 an hour. The new total is a $20 increase from the prior rate. Long-term substitute teachers, who cover an absence for more than five days, will receive $200 per day instead of the previous rate of $169.46.

The school board unanimously approved the pay raises Tuesday. Board members Lisa Hurda and Cathy Myers were absent.

Board member Dale Thompson said the increases seemed fair.

“I don’t think we’re giving away the kitchen sink here,” he said.

The pay increases take effect Monday, Oct. 19.

The current pay for subs and long-term subs ranked fourth and ninth, respectively, in a cohort of 10 comparable school districts. The district typically examines its substitute pay rates every three years to remain competitive in the cohort.

Teacher absences are currently being filled just 59% of the time right now, a big decrease from last school year.

Assistant Superintendent Scott Garner called the fill rate “terrible.”

“Last year, we started to see the decrease we typically do in spring—we see a lower fill rate—but our yearly average fill rate last year was in the high 80s. This year, it’s 60%. So if I were to speculate, COVID would be the main issue,” Garner said.

Increasing pay might provide the incentive needed to help make up the difference, he said.

“We don’t have people filling the jobs. And honestly, I’m not sure that this will solve that problem, but at least it will help in case maybe somebody was on the fence” about substitute teaching, he said.

When schools can’t find subs, they have other teachers and staff members cover the absences during their prep periods. However, that puts a strain on the covering teacher’s schedule.

While covering during a prep period isn’t ideal, high school teacher absences are easier to cover that way than are elementary school absences.

“We really see a significant disruption at the elementary level because the kids stay with their teacher the entire day, basically, minus a few switches,” Garner said. “And so, when you have that person out, you have a whole class of students without a teacher, and you have to fill the entire day somehow some way.”

Garner said elementary support staff, guidance counselors and even principals are covering those absences.

“Sometimes we have to pull from other areas to help teach those kids, and when we do that on a regular basis, what happens then is those jobs don’t get done,” he said. “So the principal can’t be the principal, and the learning coaches can’t help coach the teachers.”

Many substitute teachers are of retirement age, which also puts them in the highest risk category for COVID-19. Garner said the district’s substitute teacher pool has shrunk as a result.

The district tries to maintain a pool of 200 substitute teachers because only about 150 fill openings consistently. This year, the pool is around 110 teachers with about 70 willing to accept assignments.

Younger substitute teachers could be attracted to the pay raise, which would help the district, Garner said. That change, coupled with a state decision to lower requirements for substitutes, could help offset a decline in older subs.

The state Department of Public Instruction requires that subs have associate degrees and substitute teaching training. Janesville schools prefer those with bachelor’s degrees in education but will allow substitutes with bachelor’s degrees in other areas.

The Janesville School District also is offering professional development courses for its substitute teachers to help them use technology to teach during the pandemic.

Adding more substitute teachers is a need more than a wish, Garner said.

“When you’re learning as a child in an elementary school in particular, you need that consistent instruction day to day in order to understand common concepts, vocabulary, skills and all that,” he said. “And when we have disruptions based on quarantining or other absences, and we’re not able to fill that position with someone with a strong knowledge base, it really puts holes in our curriculum and student learning.”