RICHMOND — With nine teachers in quarantine and not enough substitutes available, Marcia Buker Elementary School was forced to switch to a remote-learning model this week.

Though a potential positive COVID-19 case turned out negative, teachers still went into quarantine for safety reasons.

A scarcity of substitutes has been a concern for central Maine school districts for a number of years, but the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the issue.

Last year, Marcia Buker Elementary had three substitutes — this year they have one.

“That is a huge problem,” Principal Tom McKee said. “Our sub pool is usually filled with retired teachers and folks on the older side, so this year, they are not available for obvious reasons.”

He said that “in a pinch,” they can use ed techs or move teachers to other positions, but it’s not always practical. For instance, when the school had a potential exposure to COVID-19 last week, McKee said they couldn’t even find three substitutes to attempt to fill their places.

The school had to switch to a fully remote model, which McKee is calling the “SMART” program where students complete work throughout the day and check in with their teacher periodically. The program is being run as a trial this week, as the school attempts to minimize screen time that increases with remote learning.

Even though they are in quarantine, teachers are still able to teach remotely, which minimizes the substitute issue. It works for the time being, McKee said, but they would rather have the students at school.

“They have been using online platforms,” he said. “In a hybrid model, that’s what they use when they are not in person, it works.

“Does it work perfectly, no,” McKee added. “Can it be improved, yes, but it’s not practical for live sub instruction.”

Regional School Unit 2, of which Buker Elementary is a part, has been advertising the need for substitutes on its website for several months. In addition to teachers, the district needs substitute nurses in the event any of the full-time ones are off work.

The district is paying up to $200 per day for nurses, $150 for college graduates and $110 for those without a college degree, but a high school diploma. It has advertised that days and location around the RSU are flexible and can be chosen.

Maine Administrative School District 11 Superintendent Pat Hopkins said their district’s substitute teacher pool is smaller this year, too, after people withdrew themselves for health concerns.

Hopkins said that she did not have any specific numbers to share, but that it is “definitely smaller than years in the past.” In October, MSAD 11 raised the daily price of a long term sub from $90 to $120.

In addition to substitutes, Hopkins said district is also in need of ed techs and bus drivers.

It’s not uncommon to have an issue in finding subs, as RSU 2 has had an ongoing issue with it before, but McKee said that they “haven’t had anything close to this.” In the past, he said, they have been still able to manage to run the school as planned with the shortage.

McKee could see how people may be wary of entering a school right now during the pandemic, but he believes schools are “one of the cleanest places” to be. He says kids have done well wearing masks and social distancing.

“I don’t believe that there have been any transmission cases in schools,” he said. “I think that probably the misconception here is that if a sub were to come in, they may think that they could come in and be exposed, but that’s not the case.”

According to Jan. 15 data from the Maine Center For Disease Control and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the past 30 days is 27 per 10,000 staff and students, compared to 113 per 10,000 people statewide.

“This rate of new cases in schools is 24% of the statewide rate for the general population,” said the Maine Department of Education spokeswoman, Kelli Deveaux.

She said that number has decreased from 37% to 24%, from Dec. 31 to Jan. 15.

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