A Substitute Teacher Shortage Means Teaching While Sick, and That’s Not Okay

No one should have to teach while sick.

teaching while sick
Woman with common cold in bed, she use home medicine to handle sickness, she holding laptop on her knees

There’s no question that COVID-19 has magnified everything that was already wrong and broken in our education system, including how impossible it is for teachers to take a sick day without adding to their workload or feeling guilty. So I wasn’t surprised when a news story about a teacher still teaching from her hospital bed went viral. Spend just a few minutes on social media, and you’ll see that people, especially teachers, have strong opinions about it. Is she a hero going above and beyond for her students? Or is she contributing to a toxic martyrdom narrative that does more harm than good? My conclusion: we shouldn’t normalize teaching while sick.

COVID forcing the issue

These days, the stakes are higher as we experience a substitute teacher shortage and rising COVID-19 cases all over the country. School leaders have to make really hard decisions, and any guidelines or recommendations vary greatly state-to-state and keep changing. It’s hard to tell if it’s just an elevated temperature and cough or COVID-19, and yet, teachers are being asked to teach when they are sick, or even their own kids are sick, and I’m just not OK with that. Here’s what teachers in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE Facebook group shared about getting a sub in 2020. 

Taking a sick day has always been complicated

Taking a sick day isn’t simple. After all, teaching isn’t the kind of job where you can take a day off, and it doesn’t make a big difference. The reality is that when a teacher takes a sick day, it is other teachers who help out. When I was teaching, my colleagues covered my classes when I was sick. They shared their sub plans when I was too sick to write any. We had each other’s backs, but at what cost? Every time someone picked up the slack for me, they lost their lunch or prep period, and they worked for free. The guilt I felt was worse than the nagging cough that wouldn’t go away.

For many virtual teachers, no subs are available 

Online teachers shared that they aren’t allowed to get a substitute. It’s up to these teachers to keep their students working, which means more prep and planning, so the students have asynchronous work. In some ways, it is more work to take the sick day than to teach through it. Also, it’s really hard for younger students to manage a day of independent work. This puts a burden on families, many of who are working from home and unable to help their children. Many virtual teachers worry that their students won’t learn much without them so they teach while sick.


For in-person teachers, the substitute is there to supervise, not teach 


A teacher shared that if she needs to quarantine for two weeks that she will teach her students online at home while another adult supervises them in the classroom. There’s no guarantee that this adult will be another teacher. Trying to figure out the most effective way to engage students and teach them this way was something she tried to wrap her head around. Not to mention trying to teach while worrying that you may have COVID-19. Many teachers are concerned about their students falling behind or not learning as much if they can’t be there in person to teach them.

Teachers are losing their lunch or prep to cover for other teachers

At some schools, teachers are assigned a “buddy teacher” who covers for them if they are sick and vice versa. Of course, teachers feel incredibly guilty using this system because it puts more work and stress on the other teacher. Teachers hate burdening others and are more likely to teach while sick, which is why systems like this don’t work well. Also, if teachers are covering other classes during lunch and prep, that means they are working for free, and they have to find time to finish their own work. This is why so many teachers are working 24/7 this year.

Teachers can’t care for their own children when they’re sick

There is nothing worse than feeling like you are caring more for your students than your children. But many teachers feel this way. Childcare is very unreliable right now. If daycare closes and your child has to quarantine, who will care for your child while you teach? Even if teachers can teach remotely from home while an admin or another person on school staff supervises their class, that still means that the teacher’s children are unsupervised unless there is another adult at home.

If teachers can’t take a sick day, they can’t take a mental health day either

If it’s this hard and messy to get a sub for a sick day, there is no way teachers are going to feel comfortable taking a mental health day. Anxiety and stress are at an all-time high. Many teachers are sharing on social media how they are crying every day and exhausted by a workload that has doubled. Teachers should be able to see a therapist, catch up on sleep, or whatever else they need to do in order to re-energize and show up for their students. Don’t tell me that they have time off on school breaks. They are planning, grading, and doing professional development.

At some schools, admin are stepping up 

I know that teachers are doing all they can to help each other. But I worry that it’s not sustainable. I know that it is not fair. A glimmer of hope: at many schools, admin are covering for teachers and coming up with solutions to help. After all, there is no roadmap for this. So kudos to the schools with cultures where teachers’ physical and mental health comes first. Everyone wants to know, are you hiring?

What’s getting a sub in 2020 been like for you? Share in the comments below.

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A Substitute Teacher Shortage Means Teaching While Sick, and That's Not Okay