Squeezed staffing and hampered student social skills weigh on Upper Valley teachers as pandemic drags on

  • Laurie Hardt, left, Title I reading and math teacher, works with first graders Mason Miller, 6, center, and Bristol Hooper, 6, on their reading at a table in the hallway at Richards School in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Richards principal Patrice Glancey said the school is having trouble hiring Title I teachers, so they are focusing more on younger students rather than students in all grade levels as they have in the past. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Kindergartners in Brittany Leahy’s class dance along to a GoNoodle video to get them up and moving in order to improve their ability to focus in the classroom at Richards School in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Movement breaks are one of several new tools the school is using to keep students engaged as they return to a classroom setting. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A now hiring sign hangs in front of Richards School in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Like many schools in the area, Richards has been struggling to fill all of its open staff positions. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Clockwise from bottom right, first grade teacher Jen Paquette works with second graders Hunter Ruff, 7, Sutton Martzolf, 7, and first grader Izzy Lee, 6, at Richards School in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Students from different grade levels are grouped together based on ability during sections of the school day. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Third grade teacher Alex Smallwood, center, helps Mason Flewelling, 8, with a worksheet on story elements at Richards School in Newport, N.H., on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2021 7:16:41 AM
Modified: 12/5/2021 7:16:13 AM

This school year was supposed to mark a return to normal after two academic years marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Upper Valley teachers and administrators say they are facing even more challenges.

Ann Cerasoli, a kindergarten teacher at the White River School who has worked in the district for many years, described 2021-22 as the “hardest year of my career,” during a community engagement meeting held Nov. 23 by the Hartford School Board.

Cerasoli warned that if something doesn’t change to give educators some relief, “You’re going to lose a lot of teachers.”

Faculty from across the Upper Valley say student and staff attendance is variable due to quarantines and illness; substitutes and paraeducators are hard to come by; students are exhibiting problematic behaviors as some react to the trauma of the past two years and others simply don’t know how to act in a school setting.

In the meantime, teachers feel pressured to help students catch up from learning lost earlier in the pandemic and during sometimes lengthy absences due to quarantine and illness.

When schools can’t find substitutes and paraeducators, teachers have to fill in for one another when they’re out, forgoing their planning periods and adding stress.

The staffing issues come as many schools around the region also are working to address behavioral challenges from students, whose social skill development and overall school readiness has been delayed by remote and hybrid learning models instituted earlier in the pandemic, as well as other efforts to keep kids socially distanced within schools and other activities.

Upper Valley school officials say they think students’ skills will catch up eventually, but in the meantime school staff have to work harder to keep students engaged.

“I hoped that when we returned to school this fall our greatest challenge would be to continue to wear masks,” Sherry Sousa, superintendent of the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, said in an update she provided to the School Board last month. “That is not the case.”

Sousa reminded the WCSU board that students’ social skill delays are putting more demands on faculty, staff and administrators. Across the board, students are “at least a year delayed” in “understanding expectations of what it is to be with a group of individuals,” Sousa said in an interview.

The Woodstock-based supervisory union has been especially strict in COVID-19 precautions by not allowing parents or volunteers in school buildings, which she said has been effective at minimizing transmission of the virus. But she said those restrictions have come at a cost to students’ social skill development.

It’s a “tough balance,” she said.

For her part, Sousa said she and other administrators in her district are trying to support teachers and staff by “not piling on more expectations” and trying to be “kind and compassionate as a school leader ... so that people can make it through the year.”

‘March tired’

In Newport, about 20% of the district’s roughly 930 students learned remotely all last year, so this year marks the first in-person learning they’d had since March 2020.

“Those 20% I think are struggling on what are the expectations in the building and how to meet those expectations,” said Melissa Mitchler, an eighth-grade teacher at Newport Middle School who also serves as co-president of the Newport Teachers Association.

For example, Richards students need to be taught not to speak out of turn in class; appropriate times to eat, drink or use the bathroom; and ways to look for answers, experiment or share their knowledge, said Patrice Glancey Brown, the school’s interim principal.

Younger students also are showing increased dependence on adults and a desire for instant response, and their social-emotional connections and the empathy they previously had for their peers has been disrupted, she said.

“At the elementary school, the biggest impact is felt in the lower grades with the lack of in-school experience after being remote for parts or all of last year,” Brown said. “We discussed this as a school recently and realized that our third graders were the last group to have a complete ‘normal’ school year, which was when they were in kindergarten.”

Some of Newport’s youngest students came to school this year not knowing how to use a public bathroom, while some first graders didn’t know to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, said Lisa Ferrigno, a first-grade teacher at Richards School who also is co-president of the teachers union.

In some cases, students have exhibited destructive behaviors such as a TikTok trend that led to the destruction of Newport High School bathrooms earlier this fall.

“We’re seeing a lot of behavior that I would associate with anxiety about (being in the) building or some kind of trauma,” Ferrigno said.

Younger children show signs of trauma such as wanting to leave the classroom or refusing to do work, Ferrigno said.

The pandemic continues to leave a mark on children’s lives in large and small ways. Several students at Richards weren’t allowed to play in the snow at recess last week because they didn’t have snow pants, Ferrigno said. Their parents had ordered them online, but they hadn’t arrived yet, she said.

“That is impacting them too,” she said.

The staffing shortage, combined with high rates of absenteeism due to illness and quarantines required when a household member tests positive for COVID-19, mean that teachers are often scrambling to help students catch up on work they’ve missed.

“I think the amount of people out is more than it ever has been,” Mitchler said.

For her part, Ferrigno said there’s only been one week so far this school year when all of her students have been present.

It’s “hard to make progress that way ... because they’re missing school,” she said.

Mitchler said she gets three or four emails a week telling her that a student will be out. As soon as she gets one student caught up, the next one returns from an extended absence, she said.

“It’s challenging,” she said.

The juggling for teachers, which also can include managing their own children’s health and schooling, can feel overwhelming.

“Things are falling off the plate,” Mitchler said.

In a typical year, Mitchler and Ferrigno said Newport schools see a 20% turnover rate in teachers. This year, Newport schools are short several teachers and they’re worried that the situation could get worse.

“I’m concerned about what’s happening with the teaching profession,” Ferrigno said. “I’m afraid that we’re going to lose people.”

The stress of this school year is such that the teachers are “March tired,” Mitchler said. In a typical year, March is a long month with no vacations and that’s how it’s felt since October, Mitchler said.

“It’s going to be a long year,” she said.

Balancing needs

At last month’s Hartford meeting, which was attended by more than 200 people in person and online, the School Board sought input into the idea of reducing the length of the school day or other ways of giving teachers more time to respond to student work, plan lessons, analyze data, make behavior plans and organize classrooms.

The meeting came following letters from several Hartford elementary teachers outlining the problems they face this year, including staffing shortages; aggressive and violent behaviors from some students; larger class sizes at Dothan Brook School than Hartford’s other two elementary schools; and extra work to implement a new English and language arts curriculum.

“As the result of this evening we should be able to come up with some plans that will reduce that stress,” School Board Chairman Kevin Christie said at the beginning of the meeting.

But teachers and parents denounced the idea of reducing the length of the school day, even one day a week, noting that one hour a week would not give teachers the concentrated time they need to plan and think, and that it would make parents’ lives more difficult, as many of them are also working for short-staffed employers.

At the meeting, Tracy Dustin-Eichler, a Hartford parent and spouse of Dothan Brook School principal Rick Dustin-Eichler, said that the district shortened school days last year and continuing to do so would be “really challenging,” and especially so for “students who are academically vulnerable.”

She urged school officials to pause the new English and language arts curriculum and allow teachers to devote their remaining professional development days to planning, collaboration and data analysis.

Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said the district chose the new English and language arts curriculum to standardize the approach to the subject across the district’s three elementary schools and prepare students to enter the district’s single middle school. But teachers in the district complained that it takes them hours just to develop plans for one lesson using the new curriculum. In response to the teachers’ concerns, administrators have extended the implementation over three years instead of just one, said Cathy Newton, the elementary director of curriculum.

Nichole Vielleux, president of the Hartford Education Association, said that teachers did not select the new English and language arts curriculum and felt left out of the process in choosing it.

“A lot of people didn’t feel listened to,” she said.

Vielleux said she was part of the group that suggested an early release day once a week, but that a better approach might be to find some regular substitutes to fill in while teachers plan for a few hours.

“Something at the elementary (level) needs to change,” Vielleux said. “Teachers are just ... cooked. We can take one more change. I’m not sure what it is.”

Cerasoli, a kindergarten teacher at the White River School, said that last year’s emphasis on children’s social and emotional needs has given way to an increased emphasis on academics that leaves children with little time to play or talk with each other. That loss of time for check-ins and play is what’s driving the increase in difficult student behaviors, she said.

She urged a return to last year’s emphasis on social interaction, from a distance.

“Take time to talk,” she said. “That’s how they’re going to learn how to interact with each other.”

In spite of last year’s decreased emphasis on academics, Cerasoli said she still felt good about sending her kindergartners on to first grade this year.

“They had solid skills,” she said.

In a Friday message to Dothan Brook families, Rick Dustin-Eichler said the school has already taken several steps this fall aimed at reducing teachers’ stress, including hiring an additional kindergarten aide, as well as three substitutes who work in the school on an almost daily basis. In addition, the school has contracted with a local therapist to help students with “acute emotional needs,” he said.

Any extra substitute time is aimed at giving teachers a chance to work with the new curriculum, which they are allowed to adopt at a “doable pace,” he said. “I am proud of the flexibility and creative thinking that the staff has put into creating the best possible program for our children.”

The Hartford School Board is scheduled to hold its next regular meeting in person at Hartford Town Hall and online via Zoom on Wednesday at 6 p.m. It is expected to discuss ways of reducing teachers’ burden at that time.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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