With Virus Cases Rising, Staff Shortages Leave Maine Schools, Parents Overwhelmed
Three months into this a year, the vast majority of Maine’s public schools have managed to reopen classrooms, and health officials say they remain relatively safe — but as COVID-19 case numbers rise in Maine, schools are now facing shortages of teachers and other staff.
With few reinforcements in place, administrators, teachers and families say it’s at times an overwhelming challenge.
Finding teachers has been an annual challenge for the Oxford Hills School District in Western Maine. But this year has presented a whole new problem.
“It’s not an easy time,” says Superintendent Rick Colpitts. “Every day, it’s a new puzzle.”
Colpitts says the district began the year with about three teaching vacancies — not that unusual. But several teachers and a bus driver have resigned because of health concerns, he says. On top of that, the district is now dealing with quarantines: because of close contacts with COVID-19 positive people, 21 staffers across the district are now staying at home.
Colpitts says with few substitutes to call upon, principals are scraping for help wherever they can — shifting music, art and PE teachers into regular classrooms.
“We’re doing what we can to keep the quilt together. And it means taking squares from wherever we can find them and sewing them in,” he says. “But it is a daily challenge to meet the needs of our staff, who are just as anxious as the public is. And we’re working hard to address their anxieties.”
The effects are being felt far beyond Oxford Hills. Staff shortages have forced schools from Dixfield to Gray and Rockland to temporarily move to remote learning. Many teachers say they’re exhausted and burnt out as they take on more and more responsibilities.
“I think the best way to describe it is that every day of the week feels like it is both a Monday and a Friday, in late June. That’s how tired teachers and educators are,” says Doug Hodum, a science teacher and president of the teachers’ union in the Mt. Blue Regional School District in Farmington.
Hodum says the added demands of remote and hybrid learning make the workload feel like teaching 10 or 12 classes, instead of five or six. And he says with the shortage of teaching support staff, many educators feel like they can’t keep up.
“So think of it as if you’re running, and you normally run an eight-minute mile. If you move at that pace, normally, through your curriculum, now we’re running like a 16- or 20-minute mile. So we’re moving that much slower,” he says. “Because you’re trying to juggle all of these unknowns, and trying to balance student needs.”
An area that’s been particularly affected is special education. Carrie Woodcock, the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, says many students with disabilities need even more assistance and guidance from teachers while using virtual platforms. But she says a lot of that responsibility has now fallen to parents.
“Every phone call that comes into our agency, right now, is a crisis situation for families, with education,” she says. “They have hit a wall and their students are regressing, they’re seeing it regressing. They’re getting behaviors at home. And they don’t know what to do because they need more support for their children to be able to access their education.”
Local and state officials have taken several steps to try to ease the shortage. Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais says his district spent federal coronavirus relief funds to hire four long-term substitutes at each of its schools that fill in, where needed.
“But what that means is these four people show up to the school every single day, not knowing what they’re going to have to cover. Not knowing where they’re going to be put or have to move around to,” Langlais says. “But it allows for us to cover some of those unfilled positions, but also unexpected situations that have been caused by COVID.”
The state DOE has also partnered with Eastern Maine Community College to train “learning facilitators” to assist in classrooms, and the Mills administration has also eased certification requirements for qualified teachers from other states and countries. In Oxford Hills, Colpitts says that’s made a difference, as he’s hired teachers from New Jersey, Massachusetts and Florida in recent months.
But Colpitts says that while he sees educators working harder than ever this fall, he still worries about the long-term effects of the staff shortages — particularly on the most vulnerable students.
“I believe there will be gaps. I believe that there could be significant gaps, particularly in kids who are from populations, where they already had gaps prior to the COVID experience,” Colpitts says. “I don’t know how we could expect kids to advance significantly in a COVID environment, when nothing is consistent.”