The pandemic has created staffing shortages everywhere, like at Hartford-Sumner Elementary School in Sumner, part of RSU 10. Title 1 ed-tech De’Ana Celestino works on math equations Friday morning as she stands in for Abby Shields in her third grade class. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Schools have struggled with staffing shortages since before the school year began, but a rise in COVID-19 cases over the last several weeks has made a difficult situation worse for some districts.

Bus driver, ed-tech and substitute teacher vacancies are nearly ubiquitous among regional school districts striving to return to normal after more than a year of remote and hybrid teaching. Yet, despite early hopes for a normal school year, administrators have found themselves crafting creative solutions to keep busses operating and classes in session.

Maine schools 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 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 was virtually entirely among students.

Often, it’s not staff members themselves who need to quarantine. Outbreaks have caused temporary closures in childcare centers and contact tracing in schools have left school staff with little choice but to stay home to care for their children.

With few substitute teachers or bus drivers to fill in for absent and quarantined staff, school employees from administrators to custodians have stepped up to keep classes, schools and busses running. But at times, it hasn’t been enough.

Administrators were forced to move Lewiston Middle School to remote learning last week after a COVID-19 outbreak among staff left the school too short-staffed to run.

In the past two weeks, at least 19 staff members in the school tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 150 students were quarantining.

“We recognize that this is lost instructional time in person, that this puts a strain on families, and disrupts many things. However, the challenges of being too thin are too great,” Superintendent 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 threads of the coverage needed to stay open.”

In Richmond, bus runs were canceled from Monday last week until this Tuesday due to COVID-19.

“Due to the direct impact of COVID-19 on our staff, we are unable to provide bus transportation for students from now through Nov. 16,” Karl Matulis, principal of Richmond Middle and High School, told the Kennebec Journal. Instead, parents, community members and the Richmond Police Department banded together to transport students.

Oxford Hills School District Superintendent Monica Henson is reflected in a mirror at the bus garage in Norway recently. Henson is no stranger to sitting behind the wheel of a bus as she has a long history of driving sports teams and other students over the course of her career in education. On Nov. 4, she was familiarizing herself with the new buses at the bus garage on Brown Street in Norway. Diane Waltanen, a 35-year veteran bus driver, will soon be certified as an instructor and will issue a CDL license to Henson and others so they can help drive in an effort to fill the growing shortage of bus drivers in the district. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

ALL HANDS ON DECK
Not all districts have been forced to close schools or cancel bus runs as a result of staffing shortages. More commonly, staff see the effects day to day in smaller ways.

In the Mt. Blue school district, many substitutes are working in a full-time capacity as administrators search for permanent staff for vacant positions, reducing the number of substitutes available for unplanned absences, Superintendent Christian Elkington said.

As of Nov. 4, Mt. Blue had 47 openings, 30 of which were either ed-techs, bus drivers or custodians. In the previous two years, the district has had approximately 20-25 openings at this time.

When teachers are absent and substitutes aren’t available, other school staff, such as specialist teachers, ed-techs and administrators are often asked to fill in.

“You have two work areas being impacted,” Oxford Hills Superintendent 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’s being pulled to substitute teach.

Sometimes if it’s an extracurricular teacher who is absent, an art or music teacher for example, the class is canceled, she said. This leaves teachers who would have otherwise had a preparation period to continue to teach students instead.

Nearly all of the superintendents interviewed for this article described similar challenges, with some variations.

In the Lisbon school district, staff are paid an hourly rate if they cover for a teacher. Besides pulling ed-techs from the library at times, Lisbon School District Superintendent Richard Green said they are usually able to provide coverage with staff volunteers.

Henson said high rates of absences have been a persistent challenge for the Oxford Hills School District which likely predates the pandemic. According to a breakdown of October absences, staff 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, Superintendent Deborah Alden said the district has noticed a rise in requests for mental health days.

Several superintendents said there was a shortage of substitute teachers even before the pandemic. Wales-based Regional School Unit 4 Superintendent Andrew Carlton said in his more than 10 years of experience as a school administrator, he has seen a correlation between the number of substitutes and the strength of the economy.

“When the economy is good, we tend to not have a lot of substitute teachers and, if you think about it, our economy has been pretty good the last six or seven years, ” he said. “When this country was in a recession, we had more substitute teachers than we’ve ever had, because the unemployment rate was so high.

Several school districts have raised their daily rates for substitute teachers in order to compete with other districts, including RSU 4, Oxford Hills and Jay-based RSU 73.

Green said two staff members in Lisbon have created a “full blown campaign” to recruit substitutes, including setting up a table at a community event this weekend, as well as paying for fingerprinting and background check fees.

The pandemic has created staffing shortages everywhere, like at RSU 10’s Hartford-Sumner Elementary School in Sumner where Title 1 ed-tech De’Ana Celestino works on math equations Friday morning as she stands in for Abby Shields in her third grade class. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

‘NOT TOO GOOD’

Managing adequate staffing for bus runs has also been a daily struggle for many school districts this year, some of which have been operating with as many as four or five fewer bus drivers than normal.

Auburn Superintendent Cornelia Brown said many of the district’s bus drivers are already responsible for two runs each morning and afternoon, as four bus driver positions remain vacant. When drivers are out sick, others must pick up extra runs in order to transport all of the district’s more than 3,000 students to and from school.

RSU 4 has canceled its bus runs — but not schools — twice in the last month when at least half of their bus drivers were absent for various reasons. Carlton said the district did not have the staff to run the busses efficiently, nor enough to do double runs. Instead, he told the community that students would not be penalized for missing school if they were unable to find their own transportation.

“Both times that we’ve done that the communities have rallied with each other, our parents have rallied together and made sure kids go to school,” he said. “Our attendance rates were very good, but I hate asking parents to have to do that as a parent myself.”

Henson said Oxford Hills has also canceled individual busses because the driver was absent and there were no substitutes.

Many superintendents said that vacancies for bus drivers were challenging to fill before the pandemic, but COVID-19 staffing shortages have made it even more difficult.

“Finding bus drivers, has not been simple for a long time and now we’re reaching a point where our bus driving fleet and across the state is getting to the point where it’s an aging fleet that wants to retire,” Carlton said.

Henson said she and seven other staff are training to earn commercial drivers licenses so they can fill in for bus drivers when needed. Henson previously held a CDL license in North Carolina and Georgia.

“My grandfather was the school principal back in the 1940s,” she explained. “Before they consolidated the school district into county school systems, he was principal of the community school, and he drives the bus. He would come out in the morning to shovel coal in the furnace to heat the school up, and he would go out and drive the bus. So I figure if my granddad could do it, I’m not too good to do it myself.”

Superintendents encouraged community members and parents to spread the word about school vacancies and reach out to see how they may be able to help.

MSAD 17 Superintendent Monica Henson, right, is no stranger to sitting behind the wheel of a bus as she has a long history of driving sports teams and other students over the course of her career in education. On Nov. 4, she was familiarizing herself with the new buses in the yard at the bus garage on Brown Street in Norway with 35 year veteran bus driver Diane Waltanen who will be soon certified as an instructor and will issue a CDL license to Henson and others so she can help drive in an effort to fill the growing shortage of bus drivers in the district. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

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