Facilities staff members Jeffery King and Maryann Anthony pose in a classroom Tuesday at Greely Middle School in Cumberland. School Administrative District 51, which includes Greely Middle School, transitioned to remote learning Tuesday after two employees in facilities and transportation tested positive late Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Some Maine schools are being forced into remote learning because of staffing shortages created by the increasing number of teachers, bus drivers and custodians ending up in quarantine after potential exposure to the coronavirus.

School Administrative District 51, which includes Cumberland and North Yarmouth, transitioned to remote learning for the entire district Tuesday after two employees in facilities and transportation tested positive for COVID-19 late Monday, sending 16 people into 10-day quarantines.

“We didn’t have enough bus drivers available this morning to drive and we didn’t have enough custodians to clean our facilities, which is obviously a safety issue during COVID,” Superintendent Jeff Porter said.

Schools around the state face similar problems as cases rise and the number of students and staff in quarantine increases. As of Thursday, there were 338 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in Maine schools reported over the last 30 days and more than two dozen open outbreak investigations. School district leaders acknowledge that being able to offer some in-person learning is best for students and are concerned that having enough adults to run schools could soon become a major problem even though transmission in schools has been low.

“Unfortunately, we are hearing that as the COVID-19 cases are rising across our state, our schools are being increasingly impacted,” Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said in an email. “This includes an increase in the number of staff who need to quarantine, exacerbating already strained staffing shortages.”

In School Administrative District 15, which includes Gray and New Gloucester, the district shut down its high school for four days around Thanksgiving after quarantines created a shortage of teachers and support staff. While all schools are currently open, Superintendent Craig King said staffing remains a concern.

“We do have numerous students and teachers with either a diagnosis or who are being quarantined because of possible exposure,” King said. “Our schools are functioning, but if we have many more teachers who are unable to teach we may have to close one or more schools. I think that’s a challenge facing all schools, is having enough adults in the building to make the building function.”

King said absenteeism has not been a problem, but quarantines are forcing large numbers of staff, mostly teachers, to work from home. Exacerbating the problem is the difficulty in finding and attracting substitutes. King said the district raised the pay for substitute teachers by about $20, to $125 per day, but it has still been a challenge to find enough substitutes.

Facilities staff member Jeffery King works at Greely Middle School on Tuesday, while classes happened online only. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Some of our substitutes were retired people,” he said. “They worked a full career and like to work two or three days as a sub. Some of those people are senior citizens now and they’ve chosen to stay out of the school buildings, so it’s reduced the number of substitutes we have.”

In Yarmouth, only one school, Yarmouth High School, has had to close due to a staffing shortage that lasted two days. But Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said administrators, teachers and support staff have put in extra effort to cover for others who are absent in light of struggles to find substitutes. The district normally has a list of about 100 substitutes, but nearly every person on the list last year declined to be on it this year due to the pandemic, Dolloff said.

“It feels like we’re hanging on by a thread some days, due to routine illnesses and quarantines,” he said in an email. “Our substitute list has been reduced by 95% from last year, as it’s just not worth it for people to come into the building, despite the safety protocols we have in place. With absences expected to increase as we go through the winter, I anticipate schools switching to the remote setting from time to time. We’re taking each day as it comes, at this point.”

Before the pandemic, Maine schools were already facing staff shortages in some areas, including bus drivers and special educators. Expanding the educator workforce has been a priority of the department and in August the governor issued an executive order granting it flexibility in issuing emergency teaching certificates and certifications for teachers and staff coming from other states. To date, the department has issued 276 certificates under the order, Deveaux said.

In addition, the Department of Education, the Maine Community College System and Eastern Maine Community College developed the Learning Facilitator Program, a fast-track training program that gets college students into K-12 classrooms as paraprofessionals or substitutes after a week-long boot camp.

EMCC has received 154 learning facilitator applications and 16 school applications from districts interested in hosting learning facilitators. Deveaux said the first boot camp was run in September and more camps may be scheduled in the coming weeks in response to growing interest.

In Portland, staffing shortages have only factored into one school closure so far, at Portland High School. The school is currently in remote learning until Dec. 16, after two positive cases last week led to 62 close contacts who needed to quarantine, including a significant number of staff members.

“Thus far, this has been our only situation in which COVID-related staff shortages were a factor in a decision to close a building,” Tess Nacelewicz, Portland Public Schools communications coordinator, said in an email. “However, we have stated numerous times that even if Cumberland County remains ‘green,’ we would go to remote learning if we have insufficient staff to operate our schools due to positive cases/quarantines. Some small numbers of staff quarantines (such as bus drivers, for example) can have large ripple effects and cause district-wide consequences.”

In Old Orchard Beach, two schools – Old Orchard Beach High School and Jameson Elementary School – are currently closed due to staffing shortages. Of about 24 teachers at the high school, nine are in quarantine, along with a handful of support staff and a bus driver. “That is difficult to overcome,” Superintendent John Suttie said.

Staff and students who have been in a classroom for an entire day or who have attended a class with someone who tests positive are considered close contacts, and Suttie said that means he has had teachers who have had to go into quarantine even if they and their students wear masks and maintain 3 to 6 feet of distance.

“We will always be in compliance, but it does make it very difficult to keep schools open for in-person learning if those are the protocols,” he said.

In Gray, King said he is concerned about potential shortages of bus drivers, who are already doubling up on routes because of the limits on how many students can be on a bus at once. “If we had multiple bus drivers absent I’m not sure if we could have school,” he said. “It hasn’t been a problem here, but it hangs over our head.”

In SAD 51, Porter said about half of the district’s custodial staff of 25 people was out Tuesday in addition to several bus drivers. He said the district does have some people on staff who have bus driver licenses but are not assigned as bus drivers, and they will be reassigned to help bring students back on Thursday. Additionally, the district also is trying to bring in spare or retired drivers and contract with an outside cleaning company for the next 10 days in order to help bring students back safely.

The district enrolls about 2,100 students. On Tuesday there were 106 students and staff in quarantine and nine known active coronavirus cases with a 10th case pending.

“It does get to a point where it takes away from learning,” Porter said. “It’s distracting when you have a lot of students and staff in and out quarantining. When you’re managing two or three cases at a time you get into a rhythm, but at this point to manage 10 cases it’s kind of distracting and disruptive to learning. We’re getting to that threshold of does it make sense to resume learning or get people into another learning rhythm.”

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