Recently, the state of Illinois added two new laws affecting public schools in the hopes of providing a safer and better learning environment for students.
The first of these is meant to address a statewide substitute teacher shortage by reducing the cost of obtaining a substitute teaching license.
According to a recent Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents study, there are more than 16,500 teacher absences in the state on a given week and 20 percent of substitute teaching needs go unfilled.
The law also negates a previous requirement — which is believed to have led to the decline in substitute teachers throughout the state — that potential substitutes must pass a basic skills test.
With the new law, the minimum requirements of becoming a substitute teacher include a four-year college degree, a substitute license and a background check.
Regional superintendent Kelton Davis told the Republic-Times his districts are not immune to the significant shortages in substitute teachers. Darcy Fausz of the Regional Office of Education said the office’s master list of substitute teachers in the region used to total about 300 people several years ago.
That list now starts at about 145 people at the beginning of the school year, with the expectation that it will only reach about 200 by the end of the school year. This represents a 33 percent decrease in the amount of substitutes in the region.
“It’s always been a unique challenge south of I-80 that we have to contend with,” Davis said.
One of those challenges is looking for a substitute that can fill multiple positions. For instance, Davis said, local school districts may be looking for an English teacher that can also teach to English language learners.
Another issue involves retired teachers attempting to come back as substitutes. Davis said any number of roadblocks can come up with that, ranging from their teaching license expiring to keeping up with required professional development. The new law gives these retired teachers more time before their license expires and abolishes the penalties previously associated with renewing an expired license.
Columbia school superintendent Dr. Gina Segobiano told the Republic-Times her district employs an average of 10 substitutes per day in the spring. Substitutes are needed in cases where teachers use personal days, are absent due to planned professional development or for special education meetings scheduled on school days, Segobiano said.
“If a substitute is not found, teachers cover classes during their planning time, which is not ideal or preferred,” she said. “If anyone is interested in being a substitute teacher, please contact the district office” at 281-4772.
Reports also indicate that some districts in the state will ask administrators to teach when substitute teachers cannot be found to fill a teacher absence.
Lead testing in schools
The other law is an unfunded mandate that requires schools built before 2000 with kindergarten through fifth grade students to test their drinking water for lead by 2018. Schools built before 1987 will need to complete testing by the end of this year.
An unfunded mandate is one in which a school must pay for the expenses out-of-pocket to meet the requirements of the law.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, lead exposure can slow a child’s mental development. Prolonged exposure can cause abdominal pain, depression, an inability to pay attention, irritability and other side effects.
In the Columbia School District, Parkview Elementary School and Eagleview Elementary School will both require testing. Columbia Middle School is exempt because of the building’s age and Columbia High School is exempt because of the grade levels.
Segobiano said, regardless of the exemption under the law, the district plans to test the high school as well.
“We’re going to test the high school, too, because I don’t understand why you wouldn’t,” she said.
For Waterloo, every building including Rogers, Gardner and Zahnow elementary schools and Waterloo Junior High School will need the drinking water tested, with the exception of Waterloo High School.
“You hear about these superintendents crying about unfunded mandates. I’m not going to do that,” Waterloo school superintendent Brian Charron told the Republic-Times. “I tend not to when it’s a mandate to ensure the safety of students.”