Craig McMonigal substitute teacher

Craig McMonigal has his mask ready for the fall, when he’s planning to go back to substitute teaching for Champaign school district in the midst of the pandemic.

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When Craig McMonigal walks into one of the Champaign school district’s three middle schools on a given day, the substitute teacher is greeted with a common refrain.

“They say, ‘Mr. Mac, who are you today?’” McMonigal said. “They want to know which class I’m in. And they get excited or get disappointed depending on whether the kids like me or not.”

For 18 years, the 59-year-old has worked at least a few days each week, mostly in the middle schools, and in the years since his retirement from Parkland College, he’s taken on long-term positions. As the schools embraced him as one of their own, he grew to love it, and he now relates the job to putting out small fires on a day-to-day basis.

“You’re filling in for that one-day problem for a teacher who couldn’t make it because their child is sick or they have the flu, or a two-day need or a three-day need,” he said. “Or now, maybe two weeks.”

Whatever unique challenges this school year presents, McMonigal is ready to take them on. For the district he works for, that’s more important than ever.

Some substitutes have decided they aren’t coming back, leaving districts in a bind. Even McMonigal has questions that are left unanswered.

As the school year draws closer, districts are reckoning with how to run in-person classes amid a pandemic.

Urbana Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum said substitutes in her district generally come from three different categories: retirees, parents who want flexibility to be at home with their children and new college graduates who haven’t been hired full-time.

This year, those first two categories worry her.

“Our concern is that our subs that are retirees may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and therefore will be unwilling or unable to sub for the upcoming school year,” she said.

“We are also concerned that parents who sub to have additional income along with the perk of flexibility will decrease because of concerns related to contracting the virus, or they may also be needing to stay home to support their children with their own remote-learning needs.”

‘Germ factories’

When Mark Medlyn retired from the Champaign Police Department 11 years ago at the age of 52, he searched for ways to help his community.

He settled on substitute teaching, and he grew to enjoy the students’ inquisitiveness and the staff members’ professionalism as he rotated between the middle and high schools in Champaign-Urbana. In more than a decade of work, he said he’s never had a bad meal at a school, either.

Now, he’s had to make peace with the fact that he won’t be coming back this fall, and that he may never set foot in a school as a teacher again.

“In the best of cases, middle schools are germ factories,” Medlyn said, although he praised the custodial staffs at the schools. “There are certain risk factors that we all have to keep in mind, and that is not one that I feel comfortable with, at least until there’s a vaccine that comes out. ... At some point, one just needs to minimize the risk factors associated with it.”

In normal years, many districts struggle to find enough substitutes, and some of the surrounding towns pull from the same pool as C-U. That means schools have to combine classes or have administration or other staff fill in.

The former won’t be an option this year.

“There are days when we don’t have any sub positions that go unfilled, and there are days when we have several across the district that go unfilled,” said Ken Kleber, director of human resources for the Champaign district. “By and large, we’re fortunate not to have some of the difficulties that some smaller districts do.”

For Rantoul Community Schools, every sub who decides not to come back this fall, whether they live in Rantoul or C-U, takes a potential candidate away from their schools.

“It’s a challenge for Rantoul to find subs,” Superintendent Michelle Ramage said. “We compete against Champaign-Urbana. Just the drive, alone, is something that we have to account for.”

Ramage’s district, which does not include the high school, has three full-time substitutes who fill in as needed. If they run out of substitutes and staff members, though, Ramage may have to tell those students not to come to school.

“Obviously, that’s our biggest concern, for me to have to give little notice to parents to say, ‘You have to stay home,’” Ramage said. “If the virus spreads and there’s a spike in the number of teachers we have to quarantine or become ill, we have no choice.”

Ramage simply hopes to limit the amount of teachers who would have to quarantine in the case of an infection. That means limiting interaction any time they can so that multiple teachers aren’t forced to stay home at the same time.

“You only have to quarantine or go home if you are within 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer,” Ramage said. “So if we can maintain that in our schools or on our buses, then maybe it will be less likely to spread or to spread as fast.”

‘A war within myself’

The year after Sue Trusty retired from teaching Spanish at Monticello High School in 2016, a fellow teacher asked her to fill in on the second day of school.

As she walked up the steps of her former workplace, she wasn’t sure whether this day would be her last subbing or the first of many.

“I said to myself, ‘Well, if today is my last day, nothing’s lost,’” she said. “And I ended up having the best day. I know how to handle a classroom. It’s not like I don’t know what I’m doing. ... Then, other teachers started asking me to sub, and I’ve been doing it for four years and I love it.”

Trusty enjoys the fact that she can teach for a full day and then unplug. She doesn’t have to worry about grading or planning beyond that day. Since March, she’s badly missed coming to school three or four times a week.

That untethered nature of her role, though, has become a detriment. Trusty feels as if she knows even less than her former co-workers with regards to what school will be like this fall.

With one month left before school starts, she has no idea whether she’ll go back or not.

“I have really strong mixed feelings, like a war within myself,” Trusty said. “I’m sick and tired of sitting around. Mentally and emotionally, I just need to go back. I do love it and I miss it and I want to be there. I’m also loyal to a fault, and I know the district is going to need people and I don’t want to let them down, so I want to be the first one in the door.

“On the other hand, both my husband and I are in the vulnerable age category, and I’m very, very concerned. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. ... The date’s drawing closer, and I just don’t know. I feel strongly both ways.”

‘Subs don’t have contracts’

Trusty has thought about cutting back to two days a week to make sure she doesn’t become run down and susceptible to the virus, but she has no idea whether that will even help.

The uncertain and unpredictable nature of COVID-19, along with the implicit nature of substitute teaching, make the job a difficult sell.

“If I catch COVID and I’m sick for three weeks and I’m hospitalized, that costs me out of my pocket,” Medlyn said. “Is it worth $118 a day that they pay subs if I have a $3,000 hospital bill? With teachers, I assume that’s a workman’s-comp issue covered under contract, but subs don’t have contracts.”

Medlyn will miss plenty about teaching, but he’s ready to move on. But as he exits, he’s worried about those he’s left behind.

“All the administrative staff, all the support staff, all the teachers, they were nothing but great,” he said. “One of the concerns I have is for their health, and I hope that steps are in place for their health throughout the school year.”