Arranging for substitute teachers to cover teacher absences is easier and cheaper than ever for a Michigan school district, now that the district has replaced its telephone notification system with an internet model.

The old telephone system, known as Interactive Voice Response (IVR), automatically would call a substitute—often early in the morning—once a teacher indicated his or her absence. After answering the telephone, the substitute would hear an automated description of the job and use the phone’s number pad to accept or decline the assignment.

Now, the Ferndale School District Human Resources Department uses Substitute Online from Computer Software Innovations Inc., a more-efficient internet version that costs less, provides substitutes with more information, and gives teachers more control over who will take over their class.

“The phone system we were using before would only allow two teachers to access it at a time,” said Janet Bell, the district’s employment coordinator. “Not only is the new system available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but many teachers can access it at the same time.”

Whenever Bell entered data into the old system—which required two dedicated computers to operate—no one could access the system. Considering the limited amount of preparation time teachers have during the day, it didn’t leave them a lot of opportunity to request a substitute, she said.

With Substitute Online, both teachers and substitutes can log on any time, anywhere, with a secure four-digit pass code. They just click on the link to “Substitute Office” on the district’s home page and it takes them to the program.

Ferndale gave each substitute teacher with internet access listed in its directory a Substitute Online account. With this account, substitutes can log on to view job postings they’re qualified for, and each posting offers relevant details, such as who the teacher is, what grade he or she teaches, what the lesson plan is for the day, the school’s address, and the teacher’s eMail address and telephone number.

If the substitute finds a job she’d like to take, she clicks on it and waits for a confirmation number.

“Every sub that logs on can see every assignment that’s available,” Bell said. “The only assignments they don’t see are the ones where a specific sub has been requested.”

Teachers using the program can request or reject a particular substitute. If a teacher makes a request, that substitute is eMailed immediately—and if a teacher rejects a particular substitute, that substitute never sees the assignment.

If the requested substitute doesn’t respond in time, the job offer is made available to the entire list of substitutes. Teachers also have access to the substitutes’ eMail addresses and phone numbers, so they can easily contact them if they need to.

Teachers “love the option of being able to request the subs they want,” Bell said. “It also means the subs get to plan their calendars a little better, because they’re aware of what’s going on in the future.”

For $1 per absence, Substitute Online offers school districts the chance to save money, Bell said. The service, which offers more features than a traditional IVR system, “will come out close to, if not less than, the old system.”

Bell added that her administrative burden has decreased considerably using Substitute Online, because it lets teachers submit any lesson plans or special instructions directly through the internet. Before, if teachers wanted to give the substitute special instructions or information, they would have to call Bell and hope they could get through.

“When all of the teachers get into it, the teachers aren’t going to have to rely on me to relay comments or lesson plans to a sub,” Bell said.

Even with automated systems for hiring substitutes, Bell has to make calls herself on days when absences are unusually high.

“I can access this [system] from home, and I frequently do to see what assignments are still outstanding,” Bell said. “If it’s going to be a really bad day for subs, I can get on the phone and start calling from home.”

Computer access among substitutes isn’t an issue, Bell said. Once a substitute has worked at least once for Ferndale, he or she is welcome to use the computers at the district’s media center. Also, many substitutes can access the service at the library or on a friend’s computer.

“I am fully aware of people that do not have access. I tend to call them first if there are last-minute assignments, and they call me if they are interested that day,” Bell said.

Chuck Bernasconi, a spokesman for Computer Software Innovations Inc., said the real genius of the software is the edge it gives to school districts competing for a only a few substitutes.

“The [substitute] pool is limited, and because our system is so much more efficient at notifying subs—because we don’t have any busy phone lines—our [users] will be able to fill their absences while other districts are scrambling,” Bernasconi said. “You can also post lesson plans on a web site, so substitutes can preview what they will do, [and] they are prepared when they go to work.”

Bernasconi added, “With our system, [officials from] individual schools can see on their computer screen in real time who the absent teachers are and why.” Before, school officials would have to call the telephone system and listen, or wait for a notification fax.


Substitute Online

Ferndale School District