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Vermont Schools Struggle to Provide Services Amid Staffing Shortages

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Substitute teacher Adrienne MacIntyre teaching a second-grade class at Mary Hogan Elementary School in MIddlebury - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Substitute teacher Adrienne MacIntyre teaching a second-grade class at Mary Hogan Elementary School in MIddlebury

Yard work isn't typically on the list of job responsibilities for a school administrator. But on a recent Friday, Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools superintendent Libby Bonesteel, clad in a baseball cap and blue jeans, pushed a lawn mower outside Montpelier High School for an hour.

School librarian Sue Monmaney posted a picture of the unlikely scene on Twitter.

"Superintendent @Bonesteelvt pitching in wherever it's needed," Monmaney wrote. "Is there anything she can't do or won't try for [Montpelier Roxbury schools]?"

The school district is short five custodians, which means the remaining staff "are working just a massive, unhealthy amount of overtime," Bonesteel told Seven Days last week. "And to help that cause, so they don't burn out ... we're working to find different ways to relieve them of an hour or two of some of the overtime work. So, I found myself out mowing the lawn."

Bonesteel also arrives early some days to help clean school buildings before students arrive. Recently, the district's payroll clerk offered to vacuum classrooms so that Bonesteel could go home at the end of the day. Other central office staff and board members are also volunteering to help clean.

Montpelier Roxbury is, in addition, facing a shortage of paraprofessionals, food service workers and substitute teachers. And the district is far from alone. Across the state, schools are dealing with unprecedented labor challenges that are straining teachers and staff and spurring administrators to devise stopgap solutions.

What's happening in Vermont reflects a national dearth of school workers. Forty percent of school administrators describe their staffing shortages this year as "severe" or "very severe," according to an EdWeek Research Center survey.

While private employers such as retail stores and restaurants can curtail hours or limit services, schools are among a number of essential systems — including childcare centers, senior living facilities and hospitals — that simply aren't able to downshift their operations when they face a labor crunch.

Innovation is the order of the day.

Eldercare facilities are offering sign-on and referral bonuses, gift cards, and free meals to entice staff, said Laura Pelosi of the Vermont Health Care Association.

And last Friday, the University of Vermont Medical Center announced that it is helping to find temporary employees to bolster the care available at the Burlington Health & Rehabilitation Center nursing home. That's to relieve a logjam of patients who can't leave the hospital because they need more care than the rehab center can currently provide. The Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living is paying for temporary "traveling" nurses to work there.

For schools, money isn't the problem. Districts have received an influx of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds from the federal government that can be used to hire additional staff.

"I mean, that's been great — the federal dollars that have rolled in," said Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union superintendent Adam Rosenberg. "But right now, it's a personnel issue. This has been the toughest year in terms of hiring anyone — substitute teachers, kitchen staff, custodial staff, teaching staff. I mean, you name it."

His district has had to apply to the state Agency of Education for many provisional licenses this year to enable staffers to work outside their certification area — for example, allowing paraeducators to serve as special educators. "It's just very difficult finding individuals to do this work," he said. The salaries, fixed in labor contracts, are low.

"In a normal year, we might get 15 applicants" when there's an open position, said Peter Burrows, the superintendent of the Addison Central School District. "This year, we may get one or two. It's just a stark contrast in terms of the number of people out there looking for work in schools."

Substitutes are also hard to find, Burrows said, which means that schools have to move employees to different parts of the building throughout the day to ensure adequate coverage. Staff members must be more flexible than ever, which can add to their fatigue, he said.

Like Bonesteel, Burrows has been helping with lunch duty and hall supervision. Principals and school board members have been filling in for classroom teachers.

Montpelier Roxbury superintendent Libby Bonesteel mowing the lawn outside Montpelier High School - COURTESY OF SUE MONMANEY
  • Courtesy Of Sue Monmaney
  • Montpelier Roxbury superintendent Libby Bonesteel mowing the lawn outside Montpelier High School

At Addison Central, parents and community volunteers — who have not been allowed in school buildings for more than a year as a COVID-19 precaution — are returning this month to help in classrooms and with lunch duty and afterschool activities. And the district has increased the pay rate for substitutes who commit to working multiple days a week.

But the extra hands haven't stopped the churn. Trina Villa began working in food service at Barre City Elementary School in 2014. She was drawn to the job because it allowed her to have the same schedule as her school-age daughter, and she likes to cook. But Villa left last month because the work became increasingly hard for what she was being paid — just $11.75 an hour.

Last year, students ate lunch in their classrooms, and only half of them were at school at any one time due to hybrid learning, Villa explained. But this year, with school back to full capacity and some students eating in their classroom and others in the cafeteria, her job became more complex.

"It was just a whole mess, because I had to do the work of, like, four people because we were super short-staffed, and I still was just getting minimum wage," Villa said. "And I was like, 'I can't.'"

Now, Villa works at a local deli — in a position that pays $13 an hour and has a parent-friendly schedule.

"I love it," she said. "My boss is super chill."

At Slate Valley Unified School District in Fair Haven, two teachers walked off the job in the first week of school because of the stress, according to superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell. In Winooski, staff absences have almost tripled, since those who have any COVID-19 symptoms are often instructed to stay home. And, said the district's human resources manager, Sarah Haven, "We're having a hard time finding subs to come in and fill those daily absences."

Though applying to work as a substitute is an easy, online process, Haven said, substitutes are still required to have a college education or be in college, which limits the candidate pool.

Over the summer, Haven said, she contacted about 30 people on the district's substitute list to see if they were interested in working this school year; more than half of them told her they'd taken a different career path or another full-time job.

The lack of subs means that teachers have had to give up their planning time to cover other classrooms, Haven said. Principals are also regularly teaching classes.

Paraeducators, sometimes called instructional assistants, who often work with individuals or small groups of students, are also in short supply. Few people applied for those jobs when the district sought to fill them over the summer. Winooski's director of special education now spends much of her time figuring out how to fill the staffing gaps, Haven said.

In the Essex Westford School District, 16 special education teacher positions are open, the district's codirector of student support services, Erin Maguire, said.

The district is working as hard as it can to make sure all special ed students are receiving the services they're entitled to, but "we absolutely need more people," Maguire said. "Jobs are posted, but no one is applying."

Literacy and math specialists and coaches — positions that focus on students' specific academic needs — are often called on to cover the classes of absent teachers, which impedes their ability to perform their jobs, said Essex Westford director of human resources Deb Anderson.

The lack of consistency can lead students to act out, said Burrows of Addison Central.

"I think if you don't have enough employees to cover all of the needs within the school — and those needs are really various in terms of all the different roles that employees fill — then it becomes harder to support students," Burrows said.

The bus driver shortage means that bus routes are regularly canceled, Anderson added.

And while districts are working hard on day-to-day fixes, leaders say they're not sure how to alleviate, more generally, the pressure schools face. Some say one relief valve will be opened when more school-age children become eligible to be vaccinated — but for now, many are resigned to just pulling together as a community and waiting it out.

"I think the fatigue that everybody is feeling is real, and I think it's just kind of where we're at," said Addison Central superintendent Burrows. "And we need to continue to do what we can and hope that [the difficulty] starts to subside and we get back into a good rhythm."

Bonesteel put it more succinctly. "Part of it is," she said, "you just got to do what you have to do."