ELLSWORTH — Nearly 10 weeks into the school year, schools throughout Hancock County are still trying to fill numerous openings for teachers and support staff. And while the doors still open early every morning apart from sporadic COVID-19 closures, the staff members who show up are shouldering the extra work.
“Burnout is a serious concern for schools right now, at all levels,” Surry Elementary School Principal Fred Cole said. “We are all taking on more.”
The fact that fast-food restaurants and similar jobs now pay higher wages than most ed techs earn is an issue, Cole said. “It makes it hard to retain current staffing, let alone attract new staff.”
As of last week, Surry needs a social worker and is offering a $1,500 sign-on bonus for bus drivers and ed techs, but so far there have been no takers. So, when a teacher is sick, other teachers, ed techs or Cole step in. But with the shortage, special education ed techs cover “multiple children with special needs and do the best they can,” Cole said. “Every day we are in person, it feels like a victory, but it’s definitely taking its toll on staff.”
Ellsworth is in search of bus drivers, custodians, ed techs, food service substitutes, a gifted and talented teacher, a computer tech, an administrative assistant and an assistant special education director.
“From everything I’m talking about with my colleagues, we’re not alone in this across the state,” Superintendent Dan Higgins said. “It’s not just Ellsworth School Department.”
Ellsworth approved new collective bargaining contracts last year, and Higgins said that the upward trend of wages influenced the negotiations. But at the same time, he said, “burnout, stress, social and emotional well-being are absolutely significant concerns. We’ve got some resources in place for staff members across the board who are dealing with [these] challenges.”
Volunteers would be a big help, Ellsworth High School teacher and union representative Tristan Bates said, with the elementary-middle school especially having difficulty finding substitute teachers.
“One big issue is the additional duties that teachers are doing to adhere to COVID restrictions,” Bates said.
Union 93 Superintendent Reg Ruhlin said the lack of substitute teachers is one of the biggest stressors.
“When we don’t have a substitute, principals are scrambling to provide supervision,” he said.
The union’s schools have multiple openings. Blue Hill Consolidated School lacks a 7/8 math teacher and special education ed techs, plus an assistant cook. Brooksville is short an administrative assistant. Penobscot needs bus drivers and substitute drivers.
George Stevens Academy needs ed tech IIIs, custodians and substitute teachers. And Alternative Organizational Structure 91 (AOS 91) is trying to fill multiple ed tech positions throughout schools in Trenton, Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, along with finding a district nurse and special education teachers.
“It’s certainly a statewide issue,” said Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt. “It’s actually a nationwide issue as well.”
Even pre-pandemic, teacher and staff shortages were an issue, Leavitt said. “Like so many things, the pandemic has truly exacerbated those shortages.”
Some districts have had openings for months now, she noted, and she keeps hearing that “someone has just had enough.”
“The workload has just kept growing and certainly as people go out on quarantine and others have to cover and you don’t have enough staff to begin with just increases that workload,” Leavitt said.
She added that “an absence of hostility” would help.
“Whether it’s at school boards or school nurses who call to convey messages to parents, they’re being spoken to rudely,” Leavitt said. “And that’s being polite, using the word ‘rudely.’”
Like most schools, Deer Isle-Stonington, in Union 76, is short on teachers and ed techs. On some days, one-third of teachers and staff are absent, whether sick, home with a quarantining child or “you name it,” Union 76 Superintendent Robert England said.
The district lacks a K-4 special education teacher, an 8-12 English language arts teacher, a director of technology and integration and a social worker.
“Nursing staff are straight out dealing with COVID,” England said. Fortunately, the school union, which includes Sedgwick and Brooklin elementary schools, found an additional nurse for the school year. And in Deer Isle-Stonington, three permanent subs were found.
“These subs are here five days a week,” England said. “They have been crucial for helping to provide some semblance of educational continuity.”
Higgins shared a story from Ellsworth schools: He ran into an Ellsworth bus driver who had just filled in half a custodian shift.
“When you hear those stories, and that’s not an isolated story, that we have people who are stepping up, it needs to be noted that it’s recognized and appreciated,” Higgins said.