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By Collin Breaux

The Capistrano Unified School District saw its existing substitute teacher shortage become even more acute after the Thanksgiving break, San Clemente High School Principal Chris Carter said.

The first three weeks at the start of 2022 were particularly rough, Carter recalled.

“January hits, and it got ugly,” he said.

CUSD has been dealing with a general shortage of substitute teachers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—a shortage that Carter said was extremely difficult in 2021.

“We struggled all last year,” Carter said.

The shortage has been bad enough to warrant action by the CUSD Board of Trustees at a recent meeting—specifically, a resolution approved on Jan. 19 intended to address the shortage.

Among provisions approved by the board included allowing student teachers to be assigned to a classroom without the supervision of a credentialed teacher and issuing temporary certificates to individuals with a bachelor’s degree and a background check.

The district easing regulations to address staffing needs follows an executive order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 11 that also allowed flexibility with school staffing.

A staff report for the Jan. 19 meeting outlined the dilemma, noting that the shortage has been a result of the surge in COVID-19 cases from the omicron variant, as well as the district having an insufficient number of employed substitutes available to cover staff absences.

From Jan. 3-12 of this year, instructional programs in CUSD needed to fill 2,064 substitute teaching assignments for in-person instruction at an average of 258 assignments per day for eight working days, according to the report.

“Due to extreme substitute shortages caused by the omicron-driven rise in COVID-19 cases, the instructional programs were unable to fill daily substitute assignments at an average of 22% per instructional day,” the report said.

The recent shortage is said by local education officials to be easing up now, but it was pronounced in January during the general recent labor shortage, driven, in part, by a spike in cases following widespread holiday traveling and gatherings.

“Quite often, we rely on retired people,” Carter said. “COVID hit, and some of them didn’t want to put themselves in that situation.”

An “enormous” number of teachers did not report to class after the recent holiday break, Carter said.

The current pay rate for substitute teachers in CUSD is $175 a day.

CUSD Trustee Gila Jones said while people might “push through” illnesses in normal times, “responsible people” are no longer doing that during the COVID-19 pandemic—hence, the reason there might be fewer instructors in the classrooms on a given day.

Joy Schnapper, head of the Capistrano Unified Education Association—the local teachers union—said the shortage has been difficult for teachers, students, and the district as a whole.

While the district has done a lot to increase the number of people in the “pool” of substitutes, potential substitutes might not feel comfortable venturing out, considering the various strains of COVID-19 circulating, Schnapper said.

“It’s really (been) quite a task, but I think people have been coming together on a wing and a prayer until the numbers subside,” Schnapper said. “My experience has always been that subs have been welcomed on campus.”

Some teachers are taking extra students into their classrooms, and special education teachers have been tasked at times with covering open classrooms that need an instructor, Schnapper said.

The shortage is not unique to CUSD and is a statewide and even national issue—and represents a decline that has been steadily happening “for a while,” Schnapper said.

Reasons given by Schnapper for the gradual decline include the increasing specialized and accelerating needs in education that can be hard to cover, including those related to math and foreign languages. More job security for substitutes—who are not unionized in CUSD—could further help, Schnapper said.

At Dana Hills High School, current teachers have sometimes given up their preparation time to fill in for open classes when substitutes aren’t available, Principal Brad Baker said.

Even administrators, including Baker, have had to pull double duty.

“It is getting better,” Baker said.

Baker said he is proud of the way his school staff has overcome absences and that the school district has done a fantastic job in recruiting substitutes. Every morning is a puzzle that everyone at Dana Hills puts together, Baker said.

“At Dana Hills, we’ve been able to get by. We’ve always been able to overcome,” Baker said. “I’m really impressed with the effort everyone’s put in.”

Dana Hills staff and faculty could use patience and grace from the public as they deal with the shortage, Baker said.

Being a substitute teacher is a tough role and one that requires the right skill set and temperament, Carter said, adding that CUSD in general is understaffed.

Anyone who is qualified for a substitute teacher position and wants to apply is welcome to do so with the district, Carter said—particularly if they’re looking for part-time work.

“Substitute teachers are an important commodity in our district,” he said. “We absolutely cherish their time and efforts.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at                         

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