This year would have marked 44 years teaching at Bismarck Public Schools for Sonja Mahlum.

“I have decided that I’m not going to be on the sub list this year,” Mahlum said.

Like many longtime teachers who regularly sub during their retirement, Mahlum isn’t going back this year because of coronavirus concerns.

“I have one risk factor, which is the age,” Mahlum said. “Don’t have any other ones but the age was a big one for me. I felt it was too much risk.”

She says many other retired teachers are doing the same.

“I have a lot of retired teacher friends, and most of them said, ‘No way,'” Mahlum said.

Hiring substitute teachers has been a challenge for districts that now have a smaller pool of subs to pick from, and a challenge for older teachers who want to stay involved but have health concerns.

“Many of them fall into a category that puts them at risk for infection of the coronavirus and so they are really thinking whether they should take that risk of going back into the classroom,” Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, said.

Bismarck Public Schools HR Manager Stacey Geiger says hiring subs was difficult even before the pandemic.

“Last year, prior to COVID, there were days we had a difficult time filling positions because we share a lot of those subs with Mandan public schools as well,” Geiger said.

She says this year, the school filled 55 out of its 66 long-term sub positions to keep teachers at the ready should there be an absence.

“This was our first year of doing this with the COVID because we had concerns with the quarantine and both contact tracing that was going on that we would need somebody readily available each day,” Geiger said.

Those long-term sub positions are new all across the state. Thanks to a recent executive order from Gov. Doug Burgum, substitutes can now stay in a school for longer than 10 consecutive days.

Executive Director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders Aimee Copas says her group has been pushing for looser requirements to address the shortage. But President of North Dakota United, a group representing teachers, doesn’t agree with that.

“We run the risk of creating an equity issue,” Archuleta said. “It is true that in larger districts we have a much more available pool of folks that can sub, but in smaller districts, that’s not the case. So if we have people that aren’t qualified to teach but are qualified to sub, that puts those students at a disadvantage.”