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November Panel Recap: Substitute Shortages in the Age of COVID

Red Rover

Insights | November 16, 2020

Even in normal times, daily absences in the US average over 200,000+ on any given school day. Now with COVID, the situation is at a crisis point. Doing the math, with an average fill rate these days running at only 54% according to a recent report by the EdWeek Research Center, that means that 100,000+ absences are going empty every single day, not to mention stress levels are through the roof.

In this first session of what will be an ongoing series as part of Red Rover’s commitment to “put the best educators in every school, every day,” our all-star panelists and over 100 district administrators from all over the country came together on November 10 to discuss this critical issue. We believe the breakthroughs come from getting the best minds in the same room (or should we say, the same Zoom) and putting all the ideas on the table. This session’s panelists were eager to share their own experiences as well as hear from the other participants about what is working for them.

Our trio of panelists were selected for their range of perspectives in the K12 HR space, representing school districts, staffing agencies, and ESAs :


K12 Absence ManagementK12-substitute-placement-softwareAbsence-management-software

Setting the Stage

After introductions, moderator Jim O’Halloran asked attendees to respond to several poll questions to determine where the group stands and to make sure we covered the most pressing topics of interest to the discussion. Their answers are revealing:



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And, speaking particularly to the current crisis, some creative perspectives came to the surface for discussion:


What’s Working: Crisis Breeds Creativity

While compensation plays an important role in any HR conversation, and certainly many districts are coming up with creative financial incentives, our panelists and participants agreed that more human-centered considerations are actually creating the tipping points for their substitute engagement.

For Berrien RESA, Lynda’s group has found success in recruiting and placing more “permanent” subs who have an assigned building schedule for certain days. These subs are paid a little more and have the assurance of having a job on certain days, which helps to even out the highs and lows.

Beyond compensation and schedules, John mentioned the importance of making subs feel like they are an integral part of the district itself, including them in their “Amphi-family” as it's called.


Now, the same communication that our district employees get goes out to the subs too. That has really helped keep them informed.

John HastingsHR Manager


Rachel echoed the important concept of belonging. Substitutes appreciate being more informed and connected with the districts and the people that they work with, to feel they are a part of something bigger. A handwritten thank you note of acknowledgement goes a long way in her book. She also mentioned the simple courtesy of communicating what subs can expect at your school when they arrive — where to park, what door to use — can help them feel more welcome.

Speaking of advance communication, it goes without saying that providing timely and transparent information about cleaning protocols and COVID rates is absolutely essential to helping subs feel confident about reporting to work.


For our agency, it’s getting out in front of safety practices so subs can know what to expect — the personal communication is extremely important. School districts need to have a similar mindset. 

Rachel WixeyPresident


In addition to the panelists, the chat conversation among the attendees was brimming with even more ideas, such as:

  • Goodie bags or mini-kits with items such as masks and hand sanitizers that help subs feel safe and welcome
  • Open houses to recruit district parents who are willing to help
  • Emergency sub recruitment in partnership with local community colleges and universities
  • Relaxing hours requirements
  • Wellness clinics for subs

Tell us about your district’s creative idea


Understanding the Demographics

We already know that our core substitute pools are retired teachers and grandparents, many of whom are understandably reluctant to come into a classroom at this time. In the Denver Public Schools system for instance, we’ve heard reports that as many as 75% of these eligible subs have taken themselves off the list! We discussed the importance of transparent communication about safety protocols to make it less threatening for some of those super-qualified subs to return, and wondered how to best encourage those possibly younger, less vulnerable people to increase their participation.


How Tech Could Help

It may seem like an oxymoron, but it could be worth exploring ways to use automated tools to add a human touch. For example, Red Rover’s text messaging features and free app for subs lets districts quickly get the word out to subscribed sub pools much quicker than beleaguered substitute managers could do on their own. Set up district-wide custom messaging or target specific subs by teacher preference, job functions, desired skills and more. Then let real-time push notifications and direct text messages get the attention of potential subs in the space where they already communicate most — on their phones.


The Message is Clear: Communicate and Appreciate

While the initial thought is that money talks, it turns out that districts are finding there are many other factors they can bring into play that may be even more powerful for substitute engagement and retention. The top priority mentioned by every one of our panelists is COMMUNICATION, closely followed by APPRECIATION. Straightforward, timely information demonstrates that a district is on top of its game, helping people feel confident in coming to work during these times. And once they are there, when you can show them they are part of a family that cares about them, they will be more motivated to return and to stay.

For us, it’s about cultivating an ongoing relationship so that our subs feel safe coming to work, knowing that we’ve provided thorough training for how to deal with COVID before they arrive. When they feel welcome, and that we care about them, they naturally want to come back to work with us.

Lynda HurlowExecutive Director of HR


What’s Next from Red Rover

For those interested in continuing the conversation, Red Rover is planning to host another webinar to go deeper on this same topic later this year or in January. In the nearer future, we would like to extend an invitation to attend our first Red Rover User Huddle on December 3. Like a virtual user group, this huddle is primarily focused on current Red Rover users who are substitute managers. Huddles are also open to other districts who are interested optimizing their substitute management.

To register for the Red Rover Huddle, visit redroverk12.com/register

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