Nicole Einsman is a Dover-Eyota substitute teacher who is accustomed to working two to three days a week.
But lately, the Rochester teacher's phone has been ringing off the hook, so insistent have been demands for her services. Last month, when the flu bug reached its peak, Einsman became effectively a full-time teacher at Dover-Eyota Public Schools.
"In the past month, I was there every day until Christmas break," Einsman said.
Her experiences point to a relatively recent phenomenon that is bedeviling area school districts: An acute shortage of substitute teachers.
The scarcity has become so pronounced that area districts have found themselves scrambling to fill vacancies. Regular teachers have been pulled from their preparation time to cover classes without a teacher. In extreme situations, principals and even superintendents have had to pitch in, particularly in the smaller districts surrounding Rochester.
"I don't remember it being this tight," said Jim Hecimovich, principal of Kingsland High School in Spring Valley. He's had had to fill in for sick teachers regularly due to the shortage. "I had to sub, back when I was an elementary principal, once in a blue moon. Now, it's a regular occurrence."
Educators describe the shortage as a statewide problem, but one that is being more acutely felt in southeastern Minnesota, where job opportunities are plentiful and the Rochester unemployment rate is a rock-bottom 2.6 percent. And if Rochester grows as many experts think it will, there are likely to be no shortage of opportunities to divert people who might otherwise consider substitute teaching.
"The job market has become so good in the Rochester area, people are not relying on substitute teaching but are finding different careers," said Byron Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Elstad.
Some education leaders say the substitute teacher shortage reflects a deeper problem: There are simply fewer people in teaching.
Dover-Eyota superintendent Bruce Klaehn said he notices the decline in the number of job applicants for teaching positions compared to a decade ago. Where once an elementary teacher opening might generate several hundred applicants, now, it's closer to 30 to 40.
While the symptoms of the problem are evident to educators, the causes are less apparent.
The predicament has pushed district leaders into brainstorming sessions on ways to enlarge the pool of substitute teachers. They have taken out notices in local newspapers and contemplated redesigning websites to attract new subs.
Some ideas involve spending more money. Dover-Eyota, for example, was among the first area districts to bump substitute pay up to $110 a day. Kingsland has contracted with "Teacher on Call," an automated service that uses email connect districts to teachers, in the hope of accessing more substitutes.
But the shortage has defied easy solution. For Vicki Koehler, a Dover-Eyota secretary and "sub caller," the task of finding substitutes to replace sick teachers has grown increasingly confounding, given that she works off a substitution list that is now a third shorter than it had been in previous years. And even those on the list are available only on certain days. A few times this year, Koehler has methodically worked down the list, only to come up empty handed.
And, she has to take the calls from substitute teachers who ask to be taken off her list. "I just cry every time that happens," Koehler said. "It takes it down some more. We have been very lucky with the subs. We just don't have enough of them."
Officials say the shortage is not evenly spread across every discipline and grade level. Special education and the sciences are among the areas where the problem is more keenly felt.
Also, the shortage has impacted Rochester Public Schools but not to the same degree, said the district's Executive Director of Human Resources Brooke Bass. Some positions are easy to fill, others are not. Special education, gym, music, art and foreign languages are among the most difficult.
Bass said the number of substitutes needed on a particular day can fluctuate widely. She noted, for example, that on Monday, the first day back from the holiday break, there were only 42 teachers absent from school. But a month earlier, on one particular day, there were 116 teachers absent.
"That's a lot of differentiation," Bass said. "There's not 80 some people waiting around, dying to work every single day. We don't have a room full of extra substitutes."
Rochester schools has a pay structure that substitutes are likely to look upon favorably. Subs start out at $105 a day, but once they have 30 days under their belts, it jumps to $125. And retired teachers, if they return as substitutes, automatically qualify for the higher amount.
Bass said Rochester is rich in one resource that is not available to many districts. As home to a large community of medical professionals and students, it is ideally situated to benefit from "this amazing community resource." And because many have irregular work schedules that free up their weekdays, opportunities exist for them to substitute teach on weekdays.
"It's an amazing opportunity here that that I don't think other communities have," she said.
Hecimovich said he believes there's an untapped vein of potential subs out there: people with four-year degrees, fresh out of college, looking to make some money. It's just a matter of making them aware of the opportunity. Even without teaching licensure, a college graduate can become a substitute teacher under the state's short-call licensure process.
"It clearly would benefit everybody if the word was out there," Hecimovich said.
Even so, he doesn't see the problem disappearing anytime soon.
"I don't see this getting any better, especially in the Rochester area with unemployment low, and there's jobs out there," Hecimovich said. "There will be future jobs coming, and that's going to make it even tougher."