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Staffing shortages loom over start of school year in Upper Valley districts

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/21/2022 12:18:29 AM
Modified: 8/21/2022 12:14:56 AM

WEST LEBANON — With less than two weeks before the first day of classes, many school districts in the Upper Valley are still scrambling to fill staffing needs, with some having to adjust student or staff schedules to compensate for teacher shortages, according to superintendents.

While school staffing shortages are not a new problem, filling vacancies over the summer has grown increasingly challenging and stressful since the start of the pandemic, area superintendents told the Valley News.

An increase in educators leaving the profession for retirement or for jobs outside education, combined with a decade-long decline in people entering the teaching profession, has left school districts trying to fill a wider range of vacancies, often from narrower pools of applicants.

“Position openings where we once would get many applications, now we might not get any or just one or two,” said Christine Bourne, interim superintendent of the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union.

Bourne, one of five new superintendents this year in Upper Valley school districts, attributed the more difficult staffing climate to several factors: an aging population of teachers nearing retirement; teacher burnout during the pandemic; and a downward trend in people entering the teaching profession.

“It is a difficult job,” Bourne noted. “And the number of people going into teaching programs (is reportedly) decreasing.”

According to Education Week, an online education news site, the number of people completing a teacher-education program declined by nearly one-third between 2008 and 2019, and many programs nationwide have reported enrollment drops of 11% or more during 2020 and 2021.

Superintendent Randy Gawel of the Orange East Supervisory Union in Bradford, Vt., also pointed to a decrease in state-supported teacher-education programs during the last decade. Many states began pulling funding from programs because graduates typically moved out of state to practice their profession, rather than staying put.

“States made a conscious decision to cut back on the programs, and we are now reaping the consequences,” Gawel said.

The lack of affordable housing also poses an obstacle, Bourne said. During her previous tenure as the principal of Hartland Elementary School, Bourne said one candidate had to turn down a contract offer after being unable to find housing in the Windsor area. Bourne also frequently assisted prospective teachers in their search for available housing, which Bourne said is becoming a common duty of principals in the area.

In some area districts, the staffing shortages are driving schools to adjust classes and staff roles to ensure sufficient academic coverage.

As of Tuesday, Newport Middle School was still seeking a new principal and four teachers, including two eighth-grade teachers for science and math that remain unfilled for the second consecutive school year. The former principal, Tom Ronning, who left Newport to serve as interim principal at Fall Mountain Regional High School, had taught math courses last school year.

Donna Magoon, interim superintendent in Newport, said she plans to meet with the eighth-grade instructional team on Monday to discuss schedule and staffing adjustments to ensure adequate coverage of students’ academic needs, safety and well-being.

Staffing schools frequently requires creative solutions, resourcefulness and flexibility, according to superintendents.

Magoon said she balanced some staffing shortages between schools through internal restructuring, finding willing staff members to change their teaching assignments, roles or school sites, to fill the most critical or difficult-to-hire vacancies.

“It is amazing what our staff are doing to give support,” Magoon said. “We’ve asked people to change (their teaching assignments), the staff have stepped up.”

School districts may also hire teachers who have only provisional teaching licenses, or conditional state licenses given to applicants who still need to fulfill their educational credits to be fully licensed. States, including Vermont and New Hampshire, expanded their issuance of provisional licenses during the pandemic due to critical shortages of teachers.

But teacher shortages are only a piece of the educational staffing equation. Even districts whose teaching positions are completely or nearly filled still report a high need for instructional assistants, substitutes, building custodians, bus drivers, athletic coaches and cafeteria staff.

“As a society we often think of it as a ‘teacher shortage,’ when it is really an ‘educational system shortage,’ ” Mascoma Regional Valley School District Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said.

The support staff play an integral role in school operations, administrators said, and shortages of staff in any area can add to the strain on the existing educational team.

“When one person is not there, others have to fill in for that piece,” Magoon said. “Every person plays a major part in running a school district successfully.”

But one of the biggest drains on many educators, and a deterrent for people wanting to enter the teaching profession, is the societal perception and attitudes toward the teaching profession, superintendents said. In recent years, schools and educators have faced legislative efforts targeting instruction and curriculum, as well as criticism from school boards and parents over lessons and school safety polcies during the pandemic.

“Education is a meaningful profession,” Gawel said. “It’s not an easy one, but it is an amazing process, and it is hard to see it dragged through the mud. We need to change the narrative.”

Administrators pointed to the importance of a healthy, inviting school culture and climate, saying that educators want to work where they feel safe and part of a community.

Changing this culture, according to superintendents, includes providing educators with the support and respect to succeed in their vocation and a teaching environment that values learning, community, safety and well-being.

“Having everyone on the same boat, rowing in the same direction, is the only way to move forward,” Magoon said.

Patrick Adrian can be reached at pfadrian25@gmail.com.


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