By Mark Betancourt

On Dec. 20, 2021, the day Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) went virtual, nearly 10% of the county’s teachers were out sick, according to a PGCPS official. Schools have struggled to find substitutes to take their places, adding to the mounting strain on educators. 

“So many people are talking about leaving,” said Sheri, a veteran elementary school teacher. Out of concern for her job, she, like several other Hyattsville-area teachers and administrators quoted in this story, spoke on the condition that her real name not be used.

Many of the problems teachers face — from low pay to inflated class sizes to a lack of funding for supplies — are not new. But all of it has become more difficult during the pandemic.

“We’re constantly having to give grace,” said Moira, another veteran elementary teacher. “Be mindful of this, be mindful of that. But we’re the last consideration.”

Prince George’s County Educators Association, the labor union that represents the county’s teachers, organized a rally in November 2021 to protest “crushing workloads.” They asked the district to hire more staff, reduce paperwork and set aside more time for lesson planning.

Teacher vacancies

Union president Donna Christy said that, since October 2021, she’s seen an uptick in teachers asking for help with the process of quitting mid-school year. “I don’t know for certain if and when they actually leave, but I know people are definitely considering leaving,” she said.

Compared to 2019,” Director of Communications Meghan Gebreselassie wrote in an email, “PGCPS has seen an increase of approximately 1.5% in the vacancy rate at the start of the school year.” Gebreselassie estimated that fewer than 500 teaching positions, which is about 5% of the district’s teaching force, remained unfilled as of mid-January. 

So far, most teachers have stuck with it. After avoiding the coronavirus for nearly two years, Kevin Burke, the social studies department chair at Northwestern High School, contracted it over this past winter break. From the beginning of the pandemic, he said, he resigned himself to the likelihood he would get sick.

“If we decided as a society that schools were so important, I am OK with being like, ‘You know what? I’m essential. Our schools are essential. And if I get [COVID-19], then I get it,’” he said. “Almost every teacher had that thought and then came back to work.” 

Substitute scarcity

However, the retired teachers PGCPS depends on to substitute are often unwilling to risk exposure to the virus to cover classes. 

Jim, a local assistant principal, said he keeps calling his previously dependable subs. “They’re like, ‘I love you, but I’m not going anywhere until it gets better.’ And I get it.” 

That means working teachers have to pick up the slack, using their planning periods to cover for colleagues. Jim and his principal also fill in for teachers who are out, leaving them less time for their administrative work. “You push that back home, and then it just adds more hours to your day. And then if you have your own kids and other issues, it’s just a snowball effect.”

The problem of finding substitutes, while worsened by the pandemic, has long plagued the district. “We’ve had contract language for over 20 years providing teachers with pay when they have to provide coverage for another teacher, meaning there wasn’t a sub,” said Christy. “I talk to my colleagues in other counties, the other [union] presidents — they didn’t have that language until now.”

In January, the county managed to find substitutes for over 50% of its vacancies, according to Gebreselassie. By Jan. 26, the number of teachers calling out sick had decreased to 357, from 978 on Dec. 20, 2021.  

Even pre-pandemic, according to Christy, only about 600 substitutes were in the countywide pool. “When you have a labor force of 10,000, and you carry 400 vacancies a year, 600 only gives you 200 left to handle the day-to-day outing. We have over 200 schools, so you’re talking about less than one per school. And that’s assuming everybody took a job every day.” 

“We are continually working with our team to attract new talent and ensure fully staffed schools,” Gebreselassie responded.

Increasing pay 

The district’s proposed 2023 budget includes $2 million intended to increase pay rates for substitutes by 16%. According to a district website, substitutes without a degree currently make $86 per day, while retired PGCPS teachers make $153. 

Substitutes are not represented by a union. Brenda, a substitute who holds a master’s degree and has worked in PGCPS schools at all grade levels for decades, said that she makes $102 per day — which comes out to less than $13 per hour for an 8-hour day. “There are some people who pay rent and put food on the table for their families with this pay,” she said.

Brenda suggested that low pay is bound to push some qualified subs to teach in neighboring counties. After a recent increase in hourly pay, non-teacher certified subs with degrees in Montgomery County make about 35% more than those working in Prince George’s. For long-term assignments, it’s 63% more.      

The PGCPS Board of Education will vote on the new budget, including the funding for substitute pay, Feb. 24. Any pay increases would not take effect until next school year.

Teachers are asking for better pay, too. Some feel it would be the strongest signal the community could send them that their work and commitment are valued. “I’ve had enough thank yous to last me a lifetime,” said Burke, the high school teacher. “If you want to thank me, thank me the way you thank every other worker on the planet.”

Federal pandemic relief funds can be used to provide additional pay for school staff, and while some districts have taken advantage of that, PGCPS isn’t one of them. At a Jan. 19 school board meeting, the district’s chief financial officer, Michael Herbstman, told board members that using the relief funds for teacher bonuses would require a renegotiation of their contracts with the teacher’s union.

That renegotiation, which happens every three years, is underway now.  

Keeping it together

The teachers we spoke with said they loved their jobs and their students, and expressed gratitude for administrators at their schools, whom they saw working just as hard. “They’re amazing. They’re very understanding,” said Angela, a pre-K teacher. “That makes me, you know, I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay there.”

In addition to rolling with last minute district decisions, school administrators have become de facto public health workers. “You’ve got to do contact tracing, you’ve got to contact parents, you’ve got to think about scheduling and how many kids you can put in an old classroom that has no windows that open,” said Jim, the assistant principal.

“It’s not a Prince George’s problem,” he added. “It’s really just been a challenging year.” 

Like many of the school staff we spoke to, however, Jim thinks the district could do more to lighten the burden. “The most frustrating component of this year is people in that level trying to pretend it’s normal when staffing is the worst it’s ever been,” he said, citing academic goals set for his school that seem unrealistic now. “It’s hard to do the extras when the basics are not always happening.”