A group of substitute teachers takes part in "A Day of Absence," a demonstration calling for higher wages and benefits for substitutes, in front of the John A. Wilson Building in D.C. on Jan. 10. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
A group of substitute teachers takes part in "A Day of Absence," a demonstration calling for higher wages and benefits for substitutes, in front of the John A. Wilson Building in D.C. on Jan. 10. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

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Even as they demanded a benefits package, legal protections and pay comparable to full-time teachers, hundreds of substitute teachers continued to work — and risk their health — at several D.C. public schools this academic year amid staffing shortages and COVID-19-induced closures.  

Now, as D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) prepares to pull veteran teachers out of retirement to serve as substitutes at a substantially higher rate, a group of substitute teachers has taken their fight to city hall. 

“Starting at $15 per hour is way too low and we don’t even get a gradual salary increase [as] government employees,” said a substitute teacher and participant in the “A Day of Absence” protest on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building on Monday.  

The teacher, who requested anonymity, counted among dozens who converged in front of the building for several hours, holding signs, belting chants, and making known their cause. They expressed plans to hold similar protests every Monday from here on until DCPS and city officials meet their demands. 

The substitute teacher, who has served at five public schools across the District, said they transitioned into that work nearly four years ago after their previous employer downsized. Though they find the flexibility appealing, the teacher said it’s often difficult to pursue their interests while tending to financial obligations in an increasingly expensive city. 

“There’s no sick leave, health insurance or any kind of legal protection,” the teacher said. “That’s what we’re asking for in addition to the substantial raise in pay. We’ve been organizing since 2018 and we’ve been at the table with the chancellor’s office. They’ve been very nice but haven’t done enough.” 

The Latest Chapter in a Movement 

Throughout the school year, a dearth of teachers has compelled administrators to not only employ substitute teachers but also take over classrooms, split classrooms between teachers, and ask teachers to lead instruction during their planning period. The overlap in responsibilities has been credited as a cause of inconsistent COVID-19 mitigation. 

To the dismay of DCPS substitute teachers, DCPS announced plans last year to incentivize DCPS retirees to return to the classroom. Those who agreed to serve 90 consecutive days as substitute teachers stand to receive a $4,500 signing bonus in addition to $300 a day in compensation after their first 30 days on the job. 

Non-DCPS retiree substitutes currently earn $120 per day within the first 30 consecutive days of service. After 30 days, the daily rate jumps to $150. 

In a statement, affiliates of Washington Substitute Teachers United (WSTU) said such a move on the part of DCPS shows that officials have enough resources to adequately pay substitute teachers.

“A Day of Absence” counts as the latest chapter in a movement that started nearly four years ago when WSTU started engaging DCPS, the D.C. Council, and the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education in conversations about higher pay for substitute teachers. 

Since 2008, when they last received a pay bump, substitute teachers, many of whom hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, earned $15 per hour. Last year, District officials increased substitute teachers’ hourly rate to $18.75. However, that increase only applied to full-time substitute teachers, a group that encompasses less than 20 percent of DCPS’ substitute teacher population. 

Myrtle Washington, president of WSTU, said such circumstances have further hemorrhaged the District’s educator workforce. 

“Some substitutes have gotten other jobs [because] they are tired of the $15 per hour,” Washington said. “We’re highly educated so we bring all of these experiences with us to the classroom. There’s no fight between retired teachers and non-retired substitutes. Our discontent is with DCPS and how they’re trying to hurt us.” 

COVID-19 Still a Crucial Issue 

Another qualm substitute teachers have expressed involves communication about COVID-19 cases in District schools. 

While she commended administrators at Ketcham Elementary in Southeast and Capitol Hill Montessori in Northeast, full-time substitute teacher Ellen Gaskill said lack of communication from the DCPS central office has placed her at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. 

At the start of the pandemic, as other substitute teachers lost their jobs, Gaskill relied on her technological know-how to keep her spot during the systemwide transition to virtual learning. She has since been a constant presence at Capitol Hill Montessori. With the threat of Omicron, however, comes some concern about whether it’s safe to reenter the classroom. 

Gaskill, who moved in with her elderly parents four years ago after retiring from the public school system in North Carolina, recently lost her mother to COVID-19. Instead of returning to school, she continues to care for her father who’s reeling from the virus as well. 

“As a substitute teacher moving around from place to place, it would be nice to know what you’re walking into,” Gaskill said. “I  don’t want to be the person bringing COVID home to my family. I had already communicated to my schools that my concerns would keep me at home.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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