Friday, March 13, was a bittersweet day for Tiffany Wogsland. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic began filtering across the country, she was subbing at Brooklyn Elementary School; about to say goodbye to students for the weekend.
And, as she suspected, much longer.
Addressing the group at the end of the day — including several former kindergarten students — she said she had a feeling it was the last day of school they would have for a long time.
“I reminded them how special they were, and how proud I am of them,” she wrote the Observer in an email. “Then, as they exited the exterior doors, I hugged each one, and addressed them by name. I wanted their very last moments of this school year to be positive moments.”
A relatively new teacher to the district, Wogsland started in December 2018 as a long-term kindergarten sub at BKE, taking over a class for the second semester. This school year, she was doing daily assignments for the district, as well as the Stoughton Area School District.
But since March 13, while virtual schooling has continued around the state, opportunities for substitute teachers have not. Wogland said she’s concerned about the impact prolonged virtual schooling might have on substitute teachers, as well as full-time staff and students.
“Employment wise, it has been hard,” she said. “Obviously, no one has an idea when that might officially start back up again.”
For a veteran educator like Kay Bliefernicht, who taught special education at OHS for 36 years before retiring in 2018 and subbing exclusively at the school, the effects of the shutdown have been more emotional than financial.
“I love subbing; it gives me energy — the kids, the staff, and just being part of it all,” she wrote the Observer in an email. “I see my job as a helper; teachers can do professional development, stay home with a family member, engage in self-care, etc., with the reasonable confidence that their classrooms will be intact when they return.”
But what happens when they don’t return?
“I thought about kids I knew who probably didn’t have the resources or family support that they needed to reach their full potential at home,” Bliefernicht said. “I’m fortunate that I don’t have to rely on subbing as my sole income. I feel for those people. I don’t know what I’d do.”
For Melinda Cooper, pre-nursing student at Madison College in her third year substituting in the district, the school shutdown might signal a permanent shift in career plans.
She has not been able to work during the shutdown, so her main job is helping her children — in sixth and 11th grades — get through the rest of the school year. At the same time, she’s investigating other career avenues.
While she’s planning to apply for another three-year substitute teaching license after her current one expires June 30, Cooper said she’s concerned about her future as a substitute teacher.
“I’m truly not expecting to have that opportunity,” she wrote the Observer in an email. “I hope to, but I need to prepare myself for the alternative as well.
“I don’t know if school will be meeting in person at all, and as far as I know, that’s the only way I can work.”
Bliefernicht said she’s concerned about the plans to reopen, and whether teachers will still need substitutes.
“I guess it’s not outside the realm of possibility,” she said. “I hope the district will include subs and provide face-to-face training when this becomes a reality. We are in many, many different classrooms over the course of the year. Subs are an integral part of the system.”
Wogsland said as more information comes to light about what the future might look like for schools, she’s confident Oregon will be creative with its educational approach, which will include a continued need for substitutes.
“Teachers will still need to go on medical and family leave, will move to new districts, and there will be unexpected needs that arise,” she said. “When they do, I will be ready and willing to support those teachers, students, and schools, as a substitute. I look forward to the day that I get to be back in the classroom again.”