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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Local substitute teachers stepped up with greater demand during COVID-19

Mar 17, 2021 09:59AM ● By Julie Slama

Substitute teacher Theresa Johnson has been helping Jordan School District students for 22 years. (Aaron Ichimura/Welby Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Schools nationwide have been struggling to recruit substitute teachers, who have been in high demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Locally, six substitute teachers speak about their return to the classrooms and the safety precautions in place.

Rebecca Lyon, Canyons School District

It was March 12, 2020, and Rebecca Lyon was substituting at Hillcrest High—the day before former Gov. Gary Herbert placed schools on soft closure to stop the COVID-19 spread. It lasted the rest of the school year.

“We could see it coming,” she said, noting teachers were worried and taking some precautions.

As a former teacher and parent volunteer, Lyon became a substitute teacher in fall 2019. 

When Canyons School District reopened its schools in August, she substituted “quite a bit. A lot of them were like ‘can you do the whole week?’”

As teachers would have to quarantine from exposure, jobs increased.

“The teachers have gotten so good at Canvas, it’s become easier for a sub because the kids can just go there. Or sometimes, the teacher would actually teach the class remotely and I just had to take roll,” Lyon said. “I was substituting third grade one time and those little kids all knew how to get online and what to do. The little kids are so diligent and obedient and wear their masks. (At a middle school), a teacher had a chart on the board of which students were supposed to be the ones in charge of wiping the desk down at the end of every period.”

Not only does she substitute for the love of teaching, but also for the pay. She said a bonus working for the district is that she received her COVID-19 vaccinations from the district.

Melissa Sugden, Jordan School District

As Welby Elementary’s former PTA president and a math aide at the school, Sugden decided she wanted to be a substitute teacher.

“I love being at school; it’s just my favorite place to be,” she said. 

She decided last March to substitute teach, right before COVID-19 hit.

“I didn’t actually start being a sub until after everything got back going (this past fall),” Sugden said. “I knew the risks of going during COVID. At the beginning of the year, it was really unknown and scary. For me, I was just like if the teachers are going to go in there and my daughter’s there, I may as well go and do what I can.”

Since COVID-19, she said teachers’ lesson plans are in place.

“Mr. (Aaron) Ichimura (Welby’s principal) is really big on making sure teachers have a plan and that has made a huge difference,” she said. “You know exactly what to do and when they need hand sanitizer and when to wash their hands and clean their desks and the kids just do it. They’re prepared just because they know they could be out at any moment for two weeks.”

She also feels safe when she substitutes, and supplies such as masks, hand sanitizer, sprays and wipes have been plentiful.

“That’s an amazing thing. I’ve never seen any kid have a big problem with masks at all. It was kind of surprising how well they wear them,” she said. “We wipe down between every kid and you know, with all this cleaning, I think the schools are cleaner than my house.”

Natalie Fisihetau, Murray School District

Natalie Fisihetau was substituting at Murray High the day the school district closed its doors March 12, a day ahead of the rest of the state. 

“The principal got on and said, ‘We need everyone to exit the building,’” she said. 

Since school returned in August, she has mostly substituted long term at the high school.

“I love teaching, but I’m on disability right now. I was a full-time teacher, but I have some issues that I couldn’t do it full time. I need to do it for the money. My husband lost his job and I’m on disability right now,” she said. 

Being 60, having a husband who is 65 and taking care of her elderly parents has made her more careful when she’s in the classroom. She has learned to wear her mask so it doesn’t fog up her glasses and to follow the directional arrows in the hallways. 

“COVID doesn’t scare me in the schools. I think the district has done a great job,” she said. “I’ve just been really careful and be smart about it.”

By being a long-term sub, Fisihetau is able to access district emails about cleaning and sanitation so she has stayed current with those procedures. She sprays the desks between class periods and allows students to dry them with paper towels. 

“Sometimes the classes were very, very small. I might only have six kids in class. I think the most I have had is 20—that is not likely as kids can choose to be online or hybrid. I just go with the flow and put a smile on—although people don’t know that I’m smiling with my mask,” she said. 

Karla Roberts, Canyons School District

After teaching for 10 years, Karla Roberts has substituted in elementary schools for more than a decade, appreciating the flexible schedule it has given her to care for her mother and babysit a grandchild.

“I sub in elementary. For me, it’s easy to follow the outline and pick up where the teacher left off,” she said. “My teaching experience has helped a lot.”

During COVID-19, Roberts has opted not to accept any long-term substitution positions.

“I’m sticking to two or three schools because I learned their COVID routines,” she said, adding that schools have strongly enforced not sending kids to school sick. “If the kids are even having little sniffles, they’re advising them to stay home.”

While kids are wearing masks, washing hands and being socially distanced, Roberts noticed something else about students during COVID-19.

“Students are becoming more responsible for their own learning,” she said. “They’re understanding the importance of learning after last spring and are logging on and learning what the teacher outlines. They’re also being responsible for making sure they’re able to stay in school by following the rules and helping to sanitize.”

Roberts said she has been grateful that teachers have been shown appreciation this year.

“They really do appreciate us so much more this year. They’re more aware and are expressing it,” she said. 

Theresa Johnson, Jordan School District

Theresa Johnson started substitute teaching as a way “to get out of the house.” Twenty-two years later, she still can’t stay home and is substituting in classrooms.

“Back in August, I was a little afraid and I brought my little bag in case I felt like I needed to clean something more,” she said. “But I didn’t need to. They supplied cleaners so when students switch half the day in dual immersion classes, we cleaned every desk and chair. We even clean every ball they use on the playground.”

Johnson has substituted consistently even though she is around her mother and her son’s mother-in-law, who has stage 4 colon cancer, as well as babysits a grandchild.

“I have been really careful. I don’t go into the lunchroom with the teachers; I stay in the room and eat behind a plexiglass shield. I’m 55 and I actually was one of the first in line the first day (Jordan School District) gave out the COVID shot. It surprised me that we were included and are being appreciated,” she said. “The principal comes in every morning and says, ‘Thank you and we appreciate you coming in.’”

Substituting on Fridays is one of her favorite times.

“That’s when certain kids come in, maybe that’s for extra help, or it could be your top students who want to come in because they want to be at school. This week, I had three kids come in and we had a ball there and got those kids caught up,” she said.

Nancy Mann, Canyons School District

For a decade, Nancy Mann has been a substitute, often in special education classes where she once taught full time. In addition to substituting, Mann is a competency base measure tester where she typically tests students in their literacy skills.

However, she was hesitant about returning to the classroom during COVID-19. 

“I decided to wait to see what the schools were like during testing in the fall before I decided to return to substituting,” she said. “After testing, and I saw how things worked, I knew it would be fine. I saw that the teachers, the administration and all the schools have done a great job trying to keep the kids and teachers safe, and trying to keep everything running as smoothly as possible. At every level, preschool to high school, I saw how often they’re cleaning and sanitizing, and they’re wearing masks.” 

Mann remembers on March 13 she was substituting at Brighton High when she heard announcements “track got canceled, baseball got canceled, everything got canceled.” Later, she learned schools were canceled.

“I thought about how the students were going to learn. I thought about the teachers. As teachers, you spend all your days teaching and your nights preparing. It’s a hard profession. I love a good teacher—there’s nothing better in the world,” she said. “Do you know growing up what a lot of people say is the worst thing ever? A sub. I know when I walk in, and I’m qualified, I’ve taught. I’m not going to be a sub who will turn on a movie. I’m going to carry on, keep the kids on task and carry out the day. I take it very seriously. I respect the kids and they respect me. They’re wanting to learn and I’m there to help them.”