The National Substitute Teacher Crisis: A Deep Dive

Teacher absenteeism in U.S. public schools has seen a significant rise since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to an increased demand for substitute teachers. This surge in demand, combined with a shortage of available substitutes, has raised concerns about the potential long-term consequences for student achievement, particularly in low-income communities.

Key Takeaways:

  • U.S. public schools reported a spike in chronic teacher absenteeism during the last school year.
  • 77% of schools faced challenges in finding substitute teachers, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • Some schools resorted to combining multiple classes under one substitute or even closing temporarily.
  • The substitute teacher shortage has sparked debates on recruitment, compensation, and qualification criteria.
  • Many states allow individuals with only a high school diploma to serve as substitute teachers.
  • Substitute teacher pay varies widely across the country, with some earning as little as $60 a day.
  • The federal government has suggested using COVID-19 relief funds to recruit and train substitutes.
  • Schools serving high-need students face greater challenges in securing substitute teachers.
  • Research indicates that students spend nearly an entire academic year with substitutes from kindergarten through high school.

The Current Landscape

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the already existing challenges in the education sector. Nearly 3 out of 4 public schools reported higher rates of chronic teacher absenteeism, defined as teachers missing 10 or more days of work. This has been corroborated by data from the U.S. Department of Education. The situation has become so dire that some public schools had to temporarily shut down, and in extreme cases, states like New Mexico called upon the National Guard to assist in classrooms.

Changing Substitute Teacher Requirements

The criteria for becoming a substitute teacher vary across states. While some states mandate a college degree or specific training, others, including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, and Florida, permit individuals with only a high school diploma to take up the role. The majority of substitutes work on a day-to-day basis, offering them flexibility in their schedules. However, their pay can differ significantly based on location, education, and experience.

The Impact on High-Need Schools

Schools serving large numbers of high-needs students, such as low-income, English learners, and foster youth, have been disproportionately affected by the substitute teacher shortage. For instance, in Los Angeles, schools with a higher percentage of low-income students could only find substitutes for less than a quarter of their absent teachers.

What Does the Research Indicate?

Research has shown that the demand for substitute teachers is expected to grow in the coming years. One reason is the retirement of Baby Boomer educators, who are being replaced by younger educators likely to take parental leave. Furthermore, there are significant disparities in teacher absentee rates across districts. For instance, while teachers in the District of Columbia missed an average of 6.9 days in 2016-17, those in Newark, New Jersey, were absent for an average of 16.7 days.


The substitute teacher shortage is a pressing issue that warrants immediate attention. As schools grapple with this challenge, it’s crucial to consider the long-term implications on student achievement and the overall quality of education.