Investigating The Substitute Staffing Shortage In 2024

School Districts

June 3, 2024

It is no secret that COVID-19 disrupted the substitute teaching space. Schools were forced into lockdown and many subs left the industry, leaving open absences to go unfilled. In a recent survey, 77% of school district leaders reported a “considerable” level of substitute staffing shortages, with 93% reporting some level of substitute shortage overall. While some may jump to blame this shortage on COVID-19, the reality of the situation is much more complex. In fact, the ability to fill these positions has been steadily declining for years.


In 2018-2019, schools successfully covered teacher absences only 80% of the time. This left 20% of absences to be covered by miscellaneous district staff. In 2017, this number sat around 18%. In 2016, 16%. Now in 2024, many schools have returned to operating at full capacity, with the number of monthly absences returning to pre-COVID levels. Despite this, fill rates have not risen to meet them. In fact, they have fallen. According to a 2023 Frontline Education article, fill rate trends are down more than 10% from where they were even in 2020.


Where Did the Subs Go?

To understand why this shortage is happening, it’s important to look at the available pool of substitutes. Surprisingly, according to the same survey, the number of substitutes available to work rivals the amount pre-pandemic. In early 2023, the number of available substitute teachers sat around 1.35 million. Compare this with 2020’s 1.4million.


So if substitutes are available, why haven’t the fill rates recovered? The answer is that substitutes are not working as much as they used to. They are not picking up the same amount of assignments that they used to. This is due to several factors, most of which boil down to one core issue: substitutes do not find the work conditions worth it.


Low Pay and Lack of Benefits

The most common sentiment among substitutes is that economic challenges make subbing unsustainable. While substitute teaching is often seen as a part-time job for older, retired teachers, the reality is that younger individuals increasingly fill these roles. With COVID-19 numbers continually spiking, it is too risky or older substitutes to return. This leaves schools to market to younger substitutes, most of which have a backlog of expenses to cover, including student loans and high rent rates. The salary for substitute teachers, which sits at a median of $17.97 an hour, is often not enough to cover all these expenses, especially when the work is not guaranteed and may only be for a few days a week.


This is paired with a lack of benefits and pay structure. Unlike some teachers, substitutes receive no pay during breaks, holidays, or inclement weather days. Moreover, substitutes are regularly paid less than their full-time counterparts. This is often not the case for other industries, such as tech, where on-call, backup staff are paid more per diem to compensate for the uncertainty and lack of benefits.


Hostile Work Environment

There is no shortage of testimonials detailing the work environments substitutes deal with every day. In an op-ed for NYC Taste Makers, ex-substitute Sara Darnell describes being cursed at, pelted with paper balls, and screamed at by students. “I was not taught proper classroom management,” she wrote, “but I tried my best with the tools I was given. Students are bound to defy the rules and act unruly, but what I endured was pure torture.”


Sara noted that staff were rarely helpful and often exacerbated the problem: “The teachers form cliques of their own, just like their students, and look down upon substitute teachers; we aren’t real teachers, and we don’t matter.”


This lack of support is a common issue among substitute teachers and can drive them away from the profession and into other gig opportunities, such as food delivery or ridesharing. “For my own sanity, I had to quit,” Sara wrote. “I felt an immense amount of guilt as if I was letting down my students, but I reminded myself that I was ‘just a sub.’ I am replaceable.”



Fixing the substitute teacher shortage is no simple feat, but there are a few things districts can do to improve their odds of finding and retaining substitutes, including:

1. Offering increased, competitive pay

2. Providing benefits, such as health insurance or retirement plans

3. Fostering a respectful work environment among staff and students

4. Providing classroom management training for substitutes

For a deeper look at our solutions to the staffing shortage, take a look at our blog post on the topic!

Districts can also partner with a substitute staffing company to quickly implement these solutions. Staffing companies provide school districts with highly qualified substitutes while eliminating several HR tasks, including certifying and placing. Some companies, such as Edustaff, even provide classroom management training and benefits for their subs. This can include health insurance, a 401k plan, vendor discounts, and onboarding incentives. Many school districts swear by staffing companies. Edustaff itself partners with 600 districts nationwide, providing a tried-and-true path to filling absences.