BILLINGS — Students are back in Billings schools, but teachers are hard to come by across the district, including substitutes.
Some Montana school districts had to shut down for several days last year – due to teachers out sick – and not enough subs to cover.
That didn’t happen in Billings, but staffing shortages, coupled with COVID, did create a perfect storm.
"COVID affected our sub pool and their families so there were times when we had vacancies and the principal would be teaching math that day," said Katie Nordstrom, executive director of human resources for Billings Public Schools.
That’s where teachers like Heather Hughs come in.
Hughs has been a sub at Poly Drive Elementary for 10 years, and the last couple of years, she’s been in the classroom almost full time.
"These last couple years, with COVID especially, I’ve been here a lot for COVID absences. I cover trainings. Most of my jobs are pre-booked with teachers ahead of time. But I’m also available for last-minute jobs. So, starting about October I’ll be here about most every day," Hughs said.
Hughs loves being a consistent sub at Poly because she says it gives her an opportunity to really connect with the kids. But substitute teachers like her are far and few between.
Billings School District 2 saw its substitute teacher pool basically cut in half during the pandemic.
"I feel like some of the older subs that I used to see come in, didn’t come in anymore. Higher risk," Hughs said.
Pay is also a barrier.
Subs make $125 a day if they aren’t certified. Those who are receive $150.
Prior to COVID, subs were making just $75 a day.
"I’m pretty lucky that I can choose to do this despite the pay not always matching the level of work you put in," Hughs said.
That pay increase helped the district expand its substitute pool to around 200 teachers this year, which helps.
But for Hughs though, it’s not about the money. It’s about making a difference in the lives of kids – a rewarding job that she takes pride in.
"I wish people knew how hard your teachers are working. And how we truly want what’s best for your kid," Hughs said.
Added Nordstrom: "We couldn’t get by without them. They are a key team player to the Billings Public Schools."