Online with a Teacher or In-Person with an IA?

Recently, I had a chance to touch up with a fellow teacher. We did the usual greetings and had a lovely text-based conversation. While discussing staffing, he told me a few things that sent off alarms:

“One of his coworkers had to go out because of a family emergency. While she was gone, her class was joined to his with another teacher and her students. They ended up co-teaching 40-50 kids.”

Another comment he made…

“Another class had a teacher go out and there was no sub available. We have no subs.  The school ended up doing something to make the Instructional Assistant (IA) the teacher. There was no one else available.”  Note: IAs are also known as Teacher Assistants and Instructional Aides.

Although sad, I suspect these situations are becoming common scenarios with COVID-19 still in full swing.  I began to think about COVID’s impact on our already limited teacher pull and asked myself a question you may be able to answer:  Is it better for students to be online with a certified teacher, or in class with an IA?

With the dramatic increase of seasoned teachers and subs leaving the profession this school year since the start of COVID, this may be a question we all may have to consider.

Teacher Shortage in Arizona

Teacher shortage has been a national issue since before COVID. Since its introduction, Arizona’s teacher shortage grew from 22% to 24% as early as January of this year.  This means we went from needing an additional 1,693 teachers in January 2019 to needing an additional 1,845 teachers in January 2020. Let’s move on to the fall.  We began the 2020-2021 school year with COVID-19 still active. In response, 751 teachers left the profession in September, 2020.

Some annual teacher loss is expected for reasons including retirement, relocation, and different career choice. Exiting teachers are typically those preparing to leave after many years of longevity (retiring), or those that quickly discovered this is not the career choice for them (new teachers). Alarmingly, almost half of the teachers exiting this year were teachers that would normally return. They were not returning because of COVID.  To make matters worse, many substitute teachers are no longer providing their services due to COVID.

So, in the midst of a teacher shortage, we have an exodus of core teachers and support staff.  These teachers decided to leave education permanently, or at least for the 2020-2021 school year (in other words, until COVID is under control). As schools are planning and pushing to reopen this school year, several questions arise: 

Who will teach the students when there is no teacher? Who will fill in when assigned teachers need a long-term or short-term sub, and there is no sub? Who’s going to do it when schools have more than one or two classes or teachers having this need at the same time?


My friend’s responses gave logical answers: Pairing teachers to cover unsupported classes and instructional assistants serving as teachers.  Honestly, what other choices are there when other options are not available?

Examining the Choices

Forty to fifty students in a classroom with one teacher is terrible. With two teachers? We call that co-teaching and it can work well under the right conditions. Add in the virtual component, and two teachers co-teaching online sounds like a perfect answer when dealing with a shortage in human teacher capital during COVID. Every student deserves a certified teacher and this model can make it a reality for students that would not. But, for this model, logistics matter. Before we get too happy, here are factors to consider when thinking about using this approach:

  • Two teachers teaching the same subject, sharing 50 students equals 25 students per teacher. But, two teachers teaching two different subjects, sharing 50 students, equals 50 students per teacher. This seems to defeat the purpose. In addition to the teachers having no peer support, the students will still need a teacher if one is not available.
  • Numbers still matter, even if it’s virtual. Fifty-five elementary students can be too much for one teacher online. It can also be too much for two teachers online.  Going above that number (and it is not a magical number) can be too much for two teachers to handle at any grade level. Online instruction requires more time, opportunities, and methods to support authentic engagement and relationship building. It requires as much, or more, time to prepare virtual lessons.
  • Special consideration will need to be taken for transitioning back to school…then back home…then back to school, and so on.

Instructional Assistants (IA) are key contributors to student success. IAs provide a variety of meaningful contributions to student learning, including 1:1 and small group support, material preparation, grading, and student management. Many IAs also develop meaningful relationships with students and families that help guide students to success. Although there are some certified teachers that decided to transition into the role of an IA, the vast majority are not certified teachers.  Therefore, even with all of their expertise, the state does not identify them as being qualified to teach the class. In fact, one of the things IAs can not do based on their job description is give direct instruction.


In reality, there are many IAs that are providing support that looks a lot like teaching. When coupled with their consistency, reliability, positive student/parent relationships, and strong work performance…why can’t they cover a class when a school is in a bind?  Which is better for the students: A class with no consistent teacher (or no teacher), or a dedicated IA that can fill in until he/she receives certification (or a certified teacher fills the spot)? Some things to consider in this situation include:

  • Arizona has a history of loose requirements regarding who can teach, which has led to certification reform on a variety of levels
  • IAs are not teachers of record and should not be expected to provide direct instruction
  • There is typically a discrepancy between the salaries and teachers and IAs, with IAs receiving the lesser amount
  • Education and training requirements differ. IA positions require a high school diploma, GED, or Associates degree. Teacher Certification Requirements include at minimum a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited school, student-teacher hours, and passing scores on exams and courses

Again, which is better? With COVID continuing, and teachers not returning to class for a variety of reasons, this may be a question schools have to ask and answer more frequently and sooner than we realize. What do you think about this? Do you have another alternative? Please share your thoughts and your stories. They may help us make decisions about these important issues.




Yolanda Wheelington

Yolanda Wheelington

Phoenix, Arizona

Yolanda has taught for the past 7 years in the Phoenix Elementary School District. Her passion for developing and supporting the human potential is evident in the cross-curricular work done her classroom. She is a member of the Association Montessori International and is a RODEL Scholar. Yolanda earned a Bachelor’s in Psychology from The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.), a Master’s in Social Work and a Master’s in Education (Special Education) from Arizona State University, and a diploma in Lower Elementary Education for ages 6-12 from the Montessori Institute of North Texas.

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