Staffing shortages are forcing the Gorham, Westbrook and Bonny Eagle school districts to juggle employees to keep some courses running and buildings open. In at least one local school district, teachers are taking on some janitorial duties.

The problem can be attributed in part to the pandemic, but other factors also are driving the vacancies, superintendents say.

The districts are struggling to fill custodian and bus driver vacancies and need substitute teachers and educational technicians, among other positions.

“Multiple and complex” workforce shortages are challenging schools everywhere, said Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry. The problem stems from issues like non-competitive wages and a lack of a skilled workforce, access to training and/or affordable child care — all issues that existed before the pandemic, she said.

Perry

“The pandemic is now simply exposing these issues in a much larger way,” Perry said

Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia attributed the shortage to “tons of reasons,” including, he said, fewer people choosing education as a career path.

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs in the United States dropped 35%  between 2009 and 2014, the most recent year the statistics were available, according to the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education research organization.

That drop comes as the number of K-12 students is expected to increase to 56.5 million by 2025, up from 55.4 million in 2013, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

In Maine, licensing requirements are also an issue, Lancia said.

“For example, I know of several people who were teachers in other countries, even master’s level teachers, who cannot teach in Maine because it is so difficult to be certified,” Lancia said.

According to the Maine Department of Education, Maine does not have a reciprocal agreement with other states or governments to automatically license educators. Therefore, out-of-state applicants for Maine teaching positions must meet certain criteria, including having taught for five of the last seven years, being a graduate of an approved teacher program and holding a valid certification from another state.

School workforce shortages are likely to linger, School Administrative District 6 Superintendent Paul Penna said.

Penna

“Obviously, certifications and pay are some challenges that impact our ability to fill positions throughout the organization. Given our aging population in the workforce it seems that this will be something that will continue to be problematic,” Penna said.

Meanwhile, current staff members are working to fill the voids in the three districts.

“Right now, burnout is a very real potential for public school employees,” Perry said.

No programs have been cut in Gorham, but some middle school athletic trips are being canceled because of the district’s bus driver shortage. In classrooms, teachers are helping with custodial tasks.

“Teachers are now bagging up their trash at the end of each day and placing bags outside of their classrooms to assist custodians. Teachers are also helping out by wiping down desks and other surfaces during the day to help keep things sanitized,” Perry said.
COVID-19 precautions add to the teachers’ workload.

“We are struggling to keep our buildings clean to our typical standards,” Perry said. “As a result, everyone is working additional hours and taking on additional responsibilities to get the work done, and all this on top of additional COVID-19-related responsibilities for schools.”

Gorham is short three bus drivers and is offering $20 per hour with full benefits and a $2,000 sign-on bonus. The contracted custodial company is looking to fill several positions at $18 per hour, Perry said.

Other openings in the district include van drivers, a part-time crossing guard, lunch duty monitors and administrative assistants. Many of these positions pay $18 per hour; educational technicians, $19.

Lancia

The district has 41 substitute teachers, up from 25 when school opened for the year. It needs 95 in typical years, Perry said. Gorham pays certified substitute teachers $100 a day and non-certified, $95.

Other open Gorham positions available include a special education teacher at an elementary school, full-time substitute nurse and an adult education English teacher.

In Westbrook, the school district is in need of custodians, a bus driver, ed techs and substitute teachers.

“So far, no courses have been canceled. We are covering with substitutes,” Lancia said.

Still, Westbrook needs more substitute teachers at all grade levels, he said.

Other open positions include food service at Saccarappa Elementary School and the high school, a middle school occupational therapist, a registered nurse at Saccarappa, a high school science teacher, a middle school librarian, an English language coordinator and adult education teachers.

In  SAD 6, ed techs are filling vacant support positions.

“We have a few specific teaching positions at the high school that are vacant, but the administration is working to cover those by being very creative with assignments,” Penna said.

Principal Greg Applestein said Bonny Eagle High School needs a literacy teacher and a business teacher, in addition to an English teacher at the alternative high school. Bonny Eagle also needs more ed techs. Current ed techs have been filling in where needed.

Penna said SAD 6 started hiring last spring and was able to fill the additional positions needed to meet pandemic guidelines for social distancing so all students could return to in-person instruction.

“As with all other districts, our applicant pool is limited for all positions; so we hope to retain all of our employees,” he said.

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