Republicans and DFLers on the House Education Policy Committee agree Minnesota needs to make it easier for schools to fill the ranks of substitute teachers.

Dueling bills introduced in mid-February highlight the differing approaches the two parties want to take to address pandemic-induced substitute shortages and allow districts to declare a "crisis learning period" to shift to virtual instruction.

As proposed, DFL bill House File 2950 allows but does not require districts to adopt online learning plans to use in the event of a crisis. The bill also outlines how districts would conduct class for students without reliable internet access and provide meals for families when school buildings are closed.

It also would carve out up to five days this school year per district that would allow administrators to move all their students into virtual instruction as long as they give families 24 hours' notice.

The bill also includes three measures that fast-track the certification process for would-be teachers. One provision would allow students enrolled in teacher preparatory programs, Minnesotans with an associate's degree and existing school support staff to obtain temporary substitute licenses.

Another would allow teachers with expired licenses to accept a teaching position.

Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, testified in support of the bill in early February, but told lawmakers its provisions are stopgap solutions to longtime — and long-term — issues.

"We need to have incentives. We need to have flexibility with licensure. We need a lot more to offer people who enter the teaching profession," she said in an interview.

Too few people are becoming teachers, Henton said, and administrators in far-flung districts sometimes have a difficult time recruiting substitutes when those in North Dakota or Wisconsin offer better pay.

"It just doesn't go far enough," Henton said of the proposed legislation.

Still, she supports the legislation, saying the provisions in the bill demonstrate how critical staffing shortages are across the state.

Republicans largely agree on the problems the DFL-crafted legislation aims to solve. A shortage of substitute teachers in mid-January forced several metro-area school districts into distance learning as educators took time off either because they contracted COVID-19 or had to take care of family members who did.

But Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said DFL lawmakers' proposed antidote to workforce shortages doesn't go far enough.

A competing piece of legislation authored by Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, would have required the state's licensing board to issue licenses to short-call substitute applicants who met the same criteria laid out in the Democrat-sponsored bill. HF 2950 merely requires the licensing board to respond to applicants more quickly but does not mandate the agency issue licenses any more quickly.

Bennett also said the legislation's application requirements — that a prospective substitute already be employed by a district as support staff or otherwise enrolled in a teacher preparatory program — should be enough for the licensing board to quickly issue a credential.

"Schools, they want good people in front of their students," she said. "They're not just going to go into the streets and [say], 'Hey, come on in and teach.'"

Mueller's bill died in committee in mid-February along a party-line vote.

Republicans also oppose any measures that would allow districts to more swiftly and easily pivot to virtual learning, regardless of how temporary it would be.

"We want to set a standard as a Legislature," Bennett said. "And what our parents say is that we want our kids in school."