'Playing The Puzzle Piece Game': Del Valle ISD Grapples With Staff Shortages

By Blair Waltman-Alexin | Monday, February 14th 2022

Mae Scott walks through the cafeteria, paperwork in hand. A former teacher, she’s no stranger to school campuses, but today the room has been repurposed. Lunch tables line the perimeter with sign-up sheets and potential bosses to chat with about work prospects. Job fairs like this are common occurrences at high schools, but they are usually about getting students out into the world. This one is about bringing the community back in.


Attendees at the Substitute Job Fair fill out paperwork. The demand for substitute teachers is hitting record-breaking numbers in Central Texas due in part to the latest Covid-19 surge, but some are concerned this is a preview of an upcoming teacher shortage.

“I’ve been retired since 2007,” Scott says. “And I just felt like well, maybe this is a good time to get back out again.”

Scott was one of many attendees at the recent Del Valle ISD Substitute Job Fair. The district is trying to expand its pool of subs in order to cover absences brought on by the latest wave of Covid, and they’re hoping a boost in pay for positions ranging from teaching to maintenance will entice residents to sign up. But the need for subs extends beyond the Omicron wave as teachers and staff battle burnout and exhaustion.

“The need for subs is there,” says Christopher Weddle, the Del Valle ISD executive director of communications. “Any given day, on average, we probably are looking for realistically between 50 and 75 subs.”


A group of people line up at the registration table for the Substitute Job Fair. A spokesperson for the district said that on any given day, Del Valle ISD needs between fifty and seventy-five substitutes.

Hoping to entice new potential substitutes, Del Valle ISD has increased the substitute teacher pay for the rest of the school year. The minimum rate is now $130, with bonuses for consecutive days worked and covering on Fridays, a particularly high-need day. But they’re not the only school district searching for substitutes.

“We really are having similar staffing issues as every other district,” Weddle says.

Demand for subs is hitting record breaking numbers in Central Texas. About 450 Austin ISD central staff, including the superintendent and communications team, stepped in to sub for classes in January. Nearby Hayes CISD recently put out a call for parents to cover classes. Del Valle ISD had to shut down in late January for a day due in part to staffing shortages. It’s just one of many schools in the state forced to temporarily shutter operations.

It’s all added up to a lot of stress on staff. Lindsey Gonzalez is the principal at Joseph Gilbert Elementary School and says her administrative team has routinely been texting each other at 5 a.m. trying to stay on top of absences.

“It can be exhausting when you’re constantly playing the puzzle piece game of who’s going to be covering which classroom,” she says.

Often it's teachers that are covering for other teachers. Katrina Van Houten is a math teacher at Del Valle High School and is the president of the Del Valle Education Association. She says while they’re not required to watch classes for other teachers, they are given a spreadsheet every day of classes that need to be covered and are asked if they can take a class. Oftentimes teachers like Van Houten will pick up extra classes so that large groups of students won’t have to sit in the auditorium or the gym for a class period.

“This semester…I’ve taught 20 classes, not all at once,” Van Houten says. “There’s a lot of guilt going on there. I can’t be there one hundred percent for each kid but I can’t let them do nothing.”

That kind of stress has taken a toll on teachers, and not just in Del Valle. A recent poll by the National Education Association found that roughly 90% of respondents felt burned out and that over half are now planning to leave teaching sooner than they planned. Van Houten says that many teachers are “just done.”


A Del Valle Elementary School student works on math problems. A recent poll showed that stress and burnout were pushing more than half of teachers who responded to leave teaching sooner than they planned.

“Everyone is leaving the teaching field,” Van Houten says. “We’ve done the math, you can make more money at Thundercloud Subs. [But] we do it because we love these kids.”

It’s an issue that’s already come up for Gonzalez.

“I did lose a couple of positions mid-year, which is not typical,” Gonzalez says. “This is my fourth year as a principal and that’s only happened to me once before this year. So that is a concern of mine.”

However, teacher shortages started before the pandemic. In 2019 the demand for teachers greatly outstripped the supply, according to a study by the Learning Policy Institute. There’s also a decline in those entering the education field. Both enrollment and completion rates in education programs dropped by a third over the last decade, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. Pressures brought on by the pandemic have only exacerbated the need for teachers and substitutes.

“It'll be a way bigger problem next year because teachers are quitting this year,” Van Houten says. “We need to figure out how to get people to go into teaching.”

DVISD has been trying to tackle the staffing issue prior to the pandemic through a variety of means, including online classes and crafting an education track for students interested in teaching that incentivizes returning to work at the district. But the need for staff remains high; currently there are nearly 90 openings at the district for professional positions for everything from coaches to algebra teachers. That doesn’t include openings for substitutes, bus drivers or maintenance workers, all of which are also needed to keep the district running smoothly.

But staff are hopeful some reinforcements will come out of the Substitute Job Fair. For the two hours it was open, a steady stream of community members came in to fill out paperwork and chat with school staff. Gonzalez says she was pleased to find several applicants she could immediately reach out to based on their qualifications. Others like Krista Martinez see this as an opportunity to test out a potential career.

“I plan on becoming a teacher,” Martinez says. “I just think this is a really great way to get my feet wet.”

But many are here because of their connection to the school district, and a desire to lend a helping hand. Teachers like Van Houten are thrilled by the response, because as much as the community relies on the schools, the schools also rely on the community.

“We need them,” she says. “There’s no way to run a school without our subs.”

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