Donald Hilton, a bus mechanic for the Brunswick schools, sits in the bus on Friday that he has been driving when the district is short on drivers. Brunswick’s schools, like many others, are facing staffing challenges because of COVID-19 exposures and quarantines. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Michelle Caron doesn’t usually pick up and drop students off in her job as transportation director of the Brunswick school department, but when a few bus drivers went into quarantine due to coronavirus exposures recently, she did what she had to do to keep the department running.

All week last week Caron made routes in a school van. Mechanics also picked up bus runs to keep the transportation going amid a shortage of substitute drivers and some regular drivers in quarantine.

“We’ve been very lucky, but our superintendent has said we’re just teetering on that edge,” Caron said. “If we have a couple exposures and we quarantine out of preventive measures more bus drivers on top of what is available now, it could shut transportation down.”

Michelle Caron, director of transportation for Brunswick schools, has been driving students to and from school in one of the school vans as the district experienced a shortage of bus drivers. “Our superintendent has said we’re just teetering on that edge,” Caron says. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A number of Maine school districts were forced to scale back in-person learning for short periods when the fall term got underway in September. But the statewide surge in COVID-19 cases that began more than two months ago has made the problem much more severe. Around the state, school districts are facing staffing shortages in a number of critical areas.

The shortages are affecting not just transportation but also teaching staff and custodians. Schools and even entire districts are suspending in-person learning, sometimes for a week or longer, as quarantines because of potential exposures to COVID-19 fuel staffing shortages – even though the virus transmission rate within schools remains low.

School districts around the country are facing similar challenges in the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters of school and district leaders surveyed in November reported an increased need but a decrease in applications for substitute teachers, according to the EdWeek Research Center. The survey included 298 district leaders and 190 principals around the country.

The Maine Department of Education doesn’t track the number of open positions in schools but is responding to feedback from school districts about staff shortages that have worsened because of the coronavirus. More than 600 reciprocal and one-year emergency certifications have been issued to date under an executive order from Gov. Janet Mills to provide more flexibility for certifying education professionals. Another 2,781 educators have been certified without taking a standardized test that is normally part of the process but was also waived by the executive order.

The department is working with Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor to provide free “learning facilitator” training to students who can serve as substitutes or paraprofessionals in schools after a one-week boot camp. School districts have gotten creative to address shortages and avoid closures, too, but the sudden switch to more remote learning can add to the challenges facing students and families and highlights the toll the pandemic is having on learning.

Earlier this month, the East End Community School in Portland went remote for one week because a number of staff went into quarantine.

Even bus mechanics like Donald Hilton have been recruited to take the wheel in Brunswick, where Superintendent Phil Potenziano said his staff members are filling in for each other on a daily basis as COVID-19 quarantines reduce their ranks. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“Normally, as a single parent that would disrupt my week terribly,” said Katie Knowles, whose daughter, Georgia, is a fourth-grader at the school. But Knowles said the impact was mitigated for her since she lost her job as a restaurant server and is currently unemployed.

“If I were working right now, this would definitely stress me out because it would be very difficult to find child care,” said Knowles, 27.

Even before the pandemic, Maine was facing staff shortages in key areas such as bus drivers and special education teachers. Eighty-six percent of districts that responded to a DOE survey in late 2019 indicated they were facing bus driver shortages because of low pay, the time and cost involved in licensing, and the fact the job is often part-time.

In Buxton-based School Administrative District 6, Superintendent Paul Penna said the district moved to remote learning for last week due to shortages of bus drivers and mechanics. About half of the district’s staff of 50 bus drivers and a half dozen mechanics were in quarantine as a result of positive cases, Penna said.

“This is new to all of us,” Penna said. “We’re all thinking about teachers, but there’s another whole side that’s critical to the ability to function, and that’s maintenance and facilities. All the things that keep our schools functioning behind the scenes are critical.”

Last week marked the first time this year the entire school district closed to in-person learning, Penna said. He said teachers have made adjustments to their plans and schedules, but it can still be disruptive to have to go remote, especially for hourly employees who can’t work remotely and for families who don’t have child care lined up.

Donald Hilton, a bus mechanic for Brunswick schools, walks through the bus yard on Friday. Hilton has been filling in as a bus driver because the school district, like many others, is facing staffing challenges schools are facing due to COVID exposures and quarantines. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Maine DOE tried to create a training program for bus drivers last summer similar to the learning facilitators program for paraprofessionals run at Eastern Maine Community College, but the department ran into logistical challenges, including the Dec. 30 federal deadline to expend coronavirus relief funds, said spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux. She said the DOE has been trying to promote regional efforts to address the bus driver shortage to the general public.

Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51 also transitioned to remote learning for the entire district last week after two people tested positive among bus drivers and custodial staff, resulting in 24 people in quarantine between the two departments.

“This is the worst we’ve had since school started in September,” Superintendent Jeff Porter said this past week. “We just had a lot of cases over a short period of time and a lot of people in quarantine this week.”

SAD 51 was lucky to bring on a number of long-term substitutes at the start of the year using federal coronavirus relief funds, though not every district has been so fortunate. Megan London, who co-chairs the education department at EMCC, which is running the fast-track program for education facilitators with the DOE, said the college has heard from districts that have had to go remote due to classroom staff shortages. To date, 130 people have completed the boot camp portion of the education facilitator program and 109 are now working in schools.

“We have heard from many different places that substitutes are in high demand, which is always the case, but then when you throw quarantine, or even not quarantine, but cold symptoms or a sore throat on top of that, they need to be out,” London said. “So we are definitely hearing from folks in need of substitutes both short and long term.”

Staff shortages at Maine schools run the gamut from teachers to bus drivers to custodians. Barbara Kumin is a retired elementary school teacher who serves as one of only a few substitutes in Eliot-based Regional School Unit 35 this year. “They were always short of subs,” she says. “This year the pool is really small. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In Eliot-based Regional School Unit 35, retired classroom teacher Barbara Kumin is part of the district’s smaller-than-normal substitute teacher pool. “Going back to school this year, there weren’t a lot of subs who signed up,” said Kumin, who retired from Eliot Elementary School after 30 years as a teacher and began subbing in 2019. “I think I was the only one at my school.”

Superintendent John Caverly said the district has seen shortages among support staff and teachers this year and recently had to put the high school into remote learning because of a staffing shortage. The district hired some long-term substitutes and added other yearlong positions to help keep class sizes small and implement COVID protocols this fall, but that also drew down the pool of short-term subs, Caverly said.

“It is tricky,” Caverly said. “Certainly I think our sub pool is down from what it typically is and I think a lot of schools are doing similar things, so the number of bodies is really limited right now.”

Hayden Fitt, a recent college graduate and alumna of Marshwood High School in RSU 35, recently completed the learning facilitator boot camp and was hired by the district as a full-time substitute. Fitt wants to be an art teacher and has a conditional teaching certificate, and she said the program helped her feel more confident and prepared to be in the classroom, in addition to helping fill the need for substitutes at the school.

“I definitely still feel a little nervous with the pandemic getting worse,” said Fitt, 22. “But I don’t feel nervous being in the school.  I’m coming into contact with less people at the high school than I would at the grocery store.”

Kumin’s husband, Steven Kumin, also works as a substitute in the district. He had COVID-19 in March and while Barbara Kumin was not tested, they believe she also had COVID after getting sick around the same time. “We both have slight apprehension in regards to (safety). On the other hand I ended up getting COVID in March and I had a pretty good case,” said Steven Kumin, 67, who said he worries less about coming down with the virus again but fears having to quarantine nonetheless due to an exposure at school.

“A lot of subs are older,” he said. “Some are elderly and may not want to be subbing this year, so the numbers of substitutes are significantly reduced.”

In Brunswick, Superintendent Phil Potenziano said staff members are filling in for one another on a daily basis. Most days the transportation director and mechanics drive buses and vans when drivers are out. The district has also tapped into the education facilitator program to help fill a need for education technicians. And last week Potenziano wrote to the governor asking that school staff be prioritized for COVID vaccines so in-person learning can continue.

“We are walking what I’d like to call a razor’s edge,” Potenziano said in an email. “We want to remain open, and student and staff safety are of the utmost importance, but if we don’t have staff, we can’t provide instruction to our students.”


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