With COVID-19 positivity rates across the state hitting all-time highs, staffing shortages in schools are reaching critical levels.

Substitute teachers are in high demand and short supply, according to Glen Widmer, principal of Capt. Albert W. Stevens School in Belfast. The Republican Journal sat down with Widmer Jan. 6 to discuss the shortage of subs.

“Today, we have everything covered, and that’s great,” he said, but that is not always the case. Monday, Jan. 3, he noted, was the first time in a while where there were no teacher absences at school.

CASS is not unique, he said, noting that all county districts are struggling to fill positions, and teacher and supporting staff absences are not new, either. People get sick, or their kids get sick, or they need to leave for a medical reason, or even car accidents have caused absences, he said.

Then there is COVID, “which adds another layer.”

Even before the pandemic, Widmer said, historically substitute teachers have been in short supply. “Pre-COVID, we would have one day a week that we didn’t have a substitute,” he said. Now, he said, it is every day that a position goes unfilled. If the absence involves a music teacher, for example, they just will not have music that day, he said.

“Absences put a lot of stress on teachers and students alike,” he said. “Each person has a specific position, and when we have an absence, part of our work doesn’t get done.” To fill the gap, Widmer said, in some cases educational technicians have been shifted to lead classrooms.

In Regional School Unit 71, he explained, each school “ideally” has one dedicated substitute who comes in every day. “It’s the second year we’ve done it and we will probably continue it, because getting substitutes has always been a problem,” he said.

RSU 71 also uses a digital phone app to notify subs when an opening becomes available, streamlining the process. After a substitute teacher is hired by the district and creates an account, the app lets them choose the school and grade level they wish to work in, and notices get sent to their phone.

Widmer said being a substitute is ideal for those who like children and is also a great way to help out the district. It is a good way to try out teaching for people thinking about getting into the education field. Widmer said he began his own career substituting for his eighth grade social studies teacher in Brunswick.

According to RSU 71 administrative assistant BettyLu Davis, people wishing to apply to be substitute teachers can fill out an application at rsu71.org/ under the employment tab. Teacher subs require two years of college and are paid $130 a day, while ed tech subs require at least a high school education and are paid $112 a day.

There are sub positions for nurses and administrative assistants, which pay $128 a day, along with openings for bus driver, custodian and food service subs, which pay an hourly base rate.

RSU 71 Superintendent Mary Alice McLean told The Journal in an email the shortage of substitutes has been an issue for years, but it has been exacerbated by concerns about the coronavirus.

“Many of our subs are older and they have been more at risk,” she said. “And more staff members have needed to be absent because they themselves have tested positive or have had to quarantine because of close contact with a positive case, or because their children’s daycare has temporarily closed due to an outbreak.

“Even though more staff members have had to be out due to circumstances beyond their control, they have generally been doing a fantastic job coming to work in a pandemic and giving it their all.”

Superintendent Chris Downing of RSU 20 said the lack of available subs is “most definitely” affecting his district. Some people who have subbed in the past have chosen not to continue. “It is very hard,” he added.

The support staff at RSU 20, including ed techs, have also been picking up classes, with supervision from teachers. “It’s a tough situation right now,” he said, “and we are wondering what will happen with the new omicron variant” spreading throughout the state.

For those interested in subbing, applications can be found at rsu20.org/, by calling 548-6643 or emailing contactus@rsu20.org.

According to the RSU 20 pay scale chart on the district website, secretaries and administrative assistants are paid $97.20 a day, ed techs get $85.05 a day, nurses get $140 a day, substitute teachers receive $95 a day, custodians get $95.20 a day, kitchen workers earn $85.05 a day, bus drivers are paid $18.55 an hour, van drivers get $16.81 an hour and bus aides get $12.15 an hour.

To serve as a substitute teacher in RSU 20, candidates should have two years of college, but in some cases, including emergencies, people with less than two years of college who have graduated from high school may serve as subs. Downing said RSU 20 increased wages over the last two or three years to remain competitive with other districts.

At a Jan. 10 school board meeting, RSU 3 Superintendent Charles Brown said COVID-19 is affecting his district along with every school district in the state. “It’s impacting our staff and we don’t have the substitutes to counteract that,” he said.

Brown said he had received a call that morning from a school administrator saying they were down eight staff members. “That’s getting pretty close to having to shut schools down, because we just can’t staff the building,” he said. “We just don’t have the sub pool.”

Staff, he said, is out with COVID, or their kids have COVID, or their spouse has COVID.

Lisa Letourneau, human resources director for RSU 3, said many applicants are being turned off by the $70 background check and fingerprinting fee. In order to recruit badly needed subs, Letourneau said, the district is reimbursing applicants the fee, once they work for five days.

According to Letourneau, teacher subs are paid $105 a day, while ed techs, coaches, custodians and secretary subs receive $13.50 an hour. Bus drivers receive a base pay depending on experience. Teacher and ed tech subs must  have at least a high school diploma.

To apply for certification and fingerprinting, visit the Maine Department of Education website at  maine.gov/doe/home. For online sub applications in RSU 3, visit rsu3.org/page/employment-opportunities and hit the “Start an application for employment” link. Paper applications are also available and can be obtained at the RSU 3 Central Office, 84 School St., Unity. For more information email lletourneau@rsu3.org or call 948-6136.

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