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Schools facing staff shortages forced to close

Across the state, school districts are looking to hire substitute teachers, bus drivers, and other staff. The pandemic is exacerbating shortages that already existed

MAINE, USA — Schools across the state are shutting their doors, but not because of COVID-19 outbreaks. It's often linked to a single case and the requirement for contacts to quarantine, leading to not enough staff to make a day of learning happen.

Superintendents NEWS CENTER Maine spoke with say this is a challenge unique to this unusual time. 

Asked whether, in their years of working in education, if they had ever canceled a day of school because of a shortage of teachers, two superintendents said no. 

RSU #13 Superintendent John McDonald said, "No, not that I can ever recall."

MSAD #51 Superintendent Jeff Porter said, "We never have. Obviously for weather-related reasons, but that was because of weather, not because of staffing."

McDonald said the issue of staffing shortage is something all school districts are experiencing. "It's a common theme across the state."

McDonald canceled a day of school in Rockland Monday after a student tested positive for COVID-19, leading five teachers who were exposed needing to quarantine.

It wasn't just about those five teachers though. McDonald said, "In discussion with the high school principal, I learned that other staff had called in sick due to non-COVID-related illness and that left him without enough staff to run his program."

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At MSAD #51, which covers North Yarmouth and Cumberland, a similar situation this week. After a bus driver tested positive, there wasn't enough staff to get kids to the classroom.

Porter said, "We had two positive cases within our transportation and facilities department, and in the end, we ended up quarantining 18 staff members."

Porter said while these are challenging times, everyone in his district is stepping up to fill the staffing shortage gaps.

"It's literally all hands on deck-- everyone is pitching in to cover classes and duties and dismissals."

That includes him. Superintendent Porter has considered getting his bus license in order to assist the district with the driver shortage. 

"I don't have my bus license," Porter said, "but I'm actually considering it, I'm not kidding."

"I can hop into a classroom, dismissal, lunch duty...we all do it! All the principals do it. Everyone does it. Thankfully, most of the time we're ok, but there are days where it's a bit more or a struggle."

Schools across the state are looking to hire staff, particularly for part-time work. 

McDonald suggests, "perhaps some college students who come home for break or something like that might be interested."

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A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education released the following statement on Wednesday: “Unfortunately we are hearing that as the COVID-19 cases are rising across our state, our schools are being increasingly impacted. This includes an increase in the number of staff who need to quarantine, exacerbating already strained staffing needs.

Prior to the pandemic there were identified school staffing shortages across our state, including a growing need for bus drivers and special educators. Expanding the educator workforce has been a priority of the Department of Education, and this has included recruitment campaigns, and ongoing partnerships with higher education organizations and workforce development groups.

With the Governor’s Executive Order #7 in August, the Department of Education was able to provide flexible and reciprocal certifications to increase the eligible educator workforce, which was needed to keep class sizes small enough to maintain physical distance and to add staff as needed for health or safety needs, including quarantining. To date we have been able to issue 276 certificates under this Executive Order.

Also based on the order and in collaboration with Maine Community College System and Eastern Maine Community College, DOE developed the Learning Facilitator Program, a fast-track training program for paraprofessional level educators to expand, strengthen, and support a high-quality educator workforce. Eastern Maine Community College has received 154 learning facilitator applications and 16 school applications from districts interested in hosting learning facilitators.

Further staffing may require additional funding, and some districts have used CRF funds to cover these costs, however, this will only be an option until December 30.

School and district leaders are making difficult and necessary choices based on their available staffing and other local factors, but we know they have been preparing since March for remote models for instruction, should this become necessary.

We cannot stress how very important it is for the Maine people to help our school by following the known strategies that will help to reduce transmission of Covid-19.”

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