LEWISTON — Schools faced staff shortages before the start of the school year, but an increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks has exacerbated a difficult situation for some districts.
Bus driver, ed-tech, and substitute teacher jobs are nearly ubiquitous in regional school districts striving to return to normal after more than a year of remote and hybrid teaching. But despite early hopes for a normal school year, administrators have come up with creative solutions to keep the buses running and classes going.
Schools in Maine saw an estimated 28% increase in COVID-19 cases among students and staff, from 2,578 in September to 3,308 from Oct. 5 to Nov. 3, according to data from Maine Schools 30 Day COVID-19 Case Report data.
The Auburn school district, which publishes its COVID-19 data on its website, saw a 76% increase in cases from 34 in September to 60 in October. The increase occurred almost entirely among students.
Often it is not the employees themselves who have to be quarantined. Outbreaks have led to temporary closures in daycare centers and contact tracing in schools has left school staff with little choice but to stay at home to care for their children.
With few replacement teachers or bus drivers to fill absent and quarantined staff, school workers, from administrators to administrators, have stepped up to keep classes, schools and buses running. But sometimes it wasn’t enough.
Administrators were forced to move Lewiston Middle School to distance learning last week after a staff-to-staff COVID-19 outbreak left the school understaffed to run.
In the past two weeks, at least 19 staff at the school have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 150 students have been quarantined.
“We recognize that this is lost learning in person, that it puts pressure on families and disrupts many things. However, the challenges of being too thin are too great,” Chief Inspector Jake Langlais wrote on Nov. 4.
The announcement came just hours after Langlais wrote to the school community that several schools in the district were “on their last thread of the coverage needed to remain open”.
In Richmond, bus rides from last Monday through next Tuesday have been canceled due to COVID-19.
“Due to the direct impact of COVID-19 on our workforce, we are unable to offer bus transportation for students from now until Nov. 16,” Karl Matulis, director of Richmond Middle and High School, told the Kennebec Journal. Instead, parents, community members and the Richmond Police Department teamed up to transport students.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Not all districts have been forced to close schools or cancel bus rides due to staff shortages exacerbated by rising COVID-19 cases. More often, employees see the day-to-day effects in smaller ways.
In the Mt Blue school district, many substitutes work full-time as administrators seek permanent staff for vacant positions, reducing the number of substitutes for unscheduled absences, Chief Superintendent Christian Elkington said.
On November 4, Mt Blue had 47 openings, 30 of which were ed-techs, bus drivers or custodians. In the past two years, the neighborhood has currently had about 20-25 openings.
When teachers are absent and substitutes are not available, other school personnel such as specialist teachers, ed-techs, and administrators are often asked to fill in.
“Yes,Two work areas are affected,” Oxford Hills Chief Inspector Monica Henderson said. “You have a classroom where the teacher is absent, and then you have whatever the responsibility of the other staff member is that is to be drawn to vicarious learning.”
Sometimes class is canceled if an extracurricular teacher is absent, for example an art or music teacher. This leaves teachers who would otherwise have had a preparatory period to continue teaching students instead.
Nearly all inspectors interviewed for this article described similar challenges, with some variations.
In Lisbon’s school district, the staff gets an hourly rate if it covers a teacher. In addition to sometimes taking ed-techs out of the library, Richard Green, chief inspector of the Lisbon school district, said they are usually able to report back with staff volunteers.
Henson said high absences have been an ongoing challenge for the Oxford Hills School District, which likely predates the pandemic. According to a breakdown of absences in October, employees missed 118 days of school due to COVID-19 quarantines for themselves or their children, accounting for 20% of staff absences.
In Rumford-based RSU 10, Chief Inspector Deborah Alden said the district has noticed an increase in requests for mental health days.
Several inspectors said there was a shortage of substitute teachers even before the pandemic. Andrew Carlton, Superintendent of Regional School Unit 4 in Wales, said that in his more than 10 years of experience as a school administrator, he has seen a link between the number of replacements and the strength of the economy.
“When the economy is good, we usually don’t have many replacement teachers and if you think about it, our economy has been pretty good for the past six or seven years,” he said. “When this country in a recession, we had more substitute teachers than we’ve ever had because unemployment was so high.”
Several school districts have increased their daily replacement teacher rates to compete with other districts, including RSU 4, Oxford Hills and Jay-based RSU 73.
Green said two staff in Lisbon launched a “full campaign” to recruit replacements, including setting up a table at a community event this weekend, as well as paying for fingerprints and background check fees.
‘NOT TOO GOOD’
Managing enough staff for bus rides has also been a daily struggle for many school districts this year, some with as many as four or five bus drivers working less than usual.
Auburn Superintendent Cornelia Brown said many of the district’s bus drivers are already responsible for two morning and afternoon rides, as there are still four bus driver positions vacant. When drivers are sick, others must pick up extra rides to transport all of the district’s more than 3,000 students to and from school.
RSU 4 has canceled its bus rides – but not schools – twice in the past month when at least half of their bus drivers were absent for various reasons. Carlton said the district didn’t have the staff to run the buses efficiently, nor enough to do double trips. Instead, he told the community that students would not be penalized for missing school if they couldn’t find their own transportation.
“Both times we’ve done the communities banding together, our parents have banded together and made sure kids go to school,” he said. “Our turnout rates were very good, but I hate asking parents to do that themselves as a parent.”
Henson said Oxford Hills has also canceled individual buses because the driver was absent and there were no replacements.
Many inspectors said it was challenging to fill bus driver vacancies before the pandemic, but the staff shortage caused by COVID-19 has made it even more difficult.
“FFinding bus drivers has not been easy for a long time and now we are reaching a point where our bus fleet and statewide is reaching the point where it is an aging fleet that wants to retire,” Carlton said.
Henson said she and seven other employees are training to earn commercial driver’s licenses so they can replace bus drivers when needed. Henson previously held a CDL license in North Carolina and Georgia.
“My grandfather was the headmaster in the 1940s,” she explained. “Before they consolidated the school district into provincial school systems, he was director of the community school and driving the bus. He would come out in the morning to shovel coal into the furnace to heat up the school, and he would go out and drive the bus. So I guess if my grandfather could do it, I’m not that good at doing it myself.”
Superintendents encouraged community members and parents to spread the word about school vacancies and get in touch to see how they can help.
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