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Advocates say Maine students with disabilities are losing class time because of staff shortages

Maine schools COVID-19
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Social studies teacher Logan Landry looks over the shoulder of seventh grader Simone Moore as she works on a project while seated next to a cutout of Elvis Presley at the Bruce M. Whittier Middle School, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Poland, Maine.

Schools across Maine are struggling to find educational technicians, or "ed techs" — staff members who often provide support for students with disabilities.

Local officials say the shortage has become dire in some districts, and staff and advocates say it's already causing some students to miss out on class time.

Cara Hanson is an ed tech for MSAD 49, based in Fairfield, where she works in a program for students with disabilities. Hanson said the program has about half the number of staff members as it did at the beginning of last year. And last week, the situation reached a breaking point when several colleagues called in sick.

"There were no subs, and no one to help us," Hanson said. "So we had to call all the parents of all the students in our program, and they had to be home Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week."

Hanson said it was an unfortunate consequence of an ed tech shortage affecting schools across Maine. She attributes part of the problem in her district to relatively low pay and benefits for certain ed techs, citing a recently hired staffer who left the position after discovering how much her family's health care plan would cost.

Last week, several MSAD 49 staff, including Hanson, spoke out about the situation at a school board meeting, saying more needed to be done to fill the vacant positions.

"The whole thing for me is that the kids are not getting their needs met, lots of times," Hanson said.

Carrie Woodcock, the executive director of the Maine Parent Federation, said her organization started hearing about instances last year in which students would be sent home, or would only come in for part of the day, because of a lack of staff. Woodcock said the situation has only gotten worse this fall.

"We're not surprised with it becoming more widespread this year," Woodcock said.

Earlier this month, Portland Public Schools warned that the district could possibly have to reassign staff or periodically bring some students in for only four days a week. Woodcock worries that students with disabilities, who struggled when schools went to remote learning during the pandemic, could fall even further behind.

"If we continue to practice abbreviated school days, or calling them out, or closing programs, or four-day weeks of school, that's not the same access," Woodcock said. "And that gap is going to continue to get bigger for them."

Ben Jones, an attorney with Disability Rights Maine, said more than 50 families contacted his organization during the last school year saying that their child didn't have access to a full education.

While some school officials have said students will make up the lost instruction during the summer, Jones said that isn't a remedy for what they're missing out on.

"Planning to violate children's rights today, and then promising to make it up another day, is not a plan for equal access to education," Jones said. "That's a plan to violate students rights today, all stop. Yes, that will have to be made up at some point, for sure. But that's not equal education today."

Some districts are now offering sign-on bonuses or increasing wages for ed techs. At MSAD 49, staff last week urged the district to boost pay and benefits there, arguing that recruiting and retaining more support staff will be better for both teachers and students.

District officials did not respond to requests for comment.