Portland’s public school district may turn to four-day school weeks for some students because of a severe staffing shortage.

Although the district as a whole is short-staffed, the most critical need for educators is in the district’s special education program, Superintendent Xavier Botana said. The district is still looking for “a significant number” of teachers, therapists, other specialists and almost 30 educational technicians for its special education program, which serves around 1,000 students out of a total enrollment of roughly 6,400 students.

In order to provide appropriate services, the district is temporarily reassigning staff and has communicated, presumably with parents, plans for four-day weeks if necessary, Botana told the board of education Tuesday night.

The district did not respond to a series of questions from the Press Herald about how many ed techs it has overall, where it is reassigning staff from, what situation would call for a four-day school week, which students might be affected, whether students would learn remotely during their fifth day and how far in advance parents would be warned of a shortened week, among other things.

This comes at a time when staff shortages are straining school districts across the state and the country.

Auburn’s nearly 3,500 public school students returned to school over a week ago, but the district still has 83 unfilled positions. School Administrative District 17 in South Paris, which serves around 3,000 students, has 60 vacancies. Cape Elizabeth, which enrolls around 1,500 students, has 14 openings. RSU 63, serving 500 students in Clifton, Edington and Holden, is short four teachers and staff.


The story is the same in school districts nationwide. Big, small, rural, urban or suburban, they can’t find enough educators and staff. Schools have taken desperate measures.

In Texas, some school districts have indefinitely switched to four-day weeks in an effort to attract and retain teachers. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in July removed the state’s bachelor’s degree requirement to teach in a classroom full time. And Florida is offering military veterans five-year temporary teaching certificates even if they do not have a bachelor’s degree or a teaching certificate.  

Experts call it a crisis.

Staffing challenges are not new for public schools, especially when it comes to finding ed-techs and special education teachers and support staff. But pre-existing staff shortages were deepened during the pandemic, making it challenging for school districts to keep their doors open, get students to school and provide appropriate education from qualified people.

Because of a bus driver shortage, the Lewiston school district has had to cancel bus routes every day of the school year so far.

Portland also experienced staffing shortages last school year. Some said inadequate staffing was in part to blame for the sexual exploitation of a student in a program for high-needs students who often require one-on-one attention.


President Becky Pringle of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest educator labor union, said in an NEA article that the staff shortage is hurting students and educators – forcing educators to give up their planning and lunch time to cover for colleagues and leaving them without the energy and time to give students the attention they need.

And it’s an especially difficult time for school districts to find themselves shorthanded.

As they grapple with their staffing woes, school districts also are working to help students who fell behind academically during the pandemic catch up to grade-level standards. Compared to pre-pandemic, Portland students’ scores on a variety of standardized exams have dropped. And although the district has plans to help students bounce back, those plans require a robust workforce of teachers and other staff.

One of the district’s primary strategies for recovering from learning loss, said Melea Nalli, Portland’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, is to ensure teachers have time during the school day to collaborate with each other, discuss how students are doing and how to support students who continue to struggle academically. Nalli said that might be a time when ed-techs could jump in to cover for teachers to give them time to collaborate each other.

However, it is unclear how the district would do that if it already anticipates not having enough ed-techs to keep its special education program running five days a week consistently. Another learning loss recovery tactic the district plans to use is small-group tutoring, also a strategy likely to require more hands on deck.

Educators around the country have for years been sounding the alarm of an impending educator shortage, urging elected officials to invest in schools, teachers and support staff. Now the shortage is here and schools in Portland, in Maine and across the United States are left to answer the question: Who will teach the children?

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