PARIS — As the debate over reopening schools this fall heats up, school districts across Maine will need to take stock of their resources as officials closely monitor shifting conditions due to the coronavirus.

The Maine Department of Education has been soliciting input from stakeholders around the state in a series of online surveys, with data being collected through July 12. The department will spend the next several weeks analyzing its data.

But some rural school districts in Maine are bracing for additional challenges in staffing. Qualified teachers are always in high demand in Northern New England and some administrators fear that vacancies may increase, as some who work in the public sector may decide the health risk is too great.

In Oxford Hills, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett reports SAD 17 does not seem to be facing hiring shortfalls in the immediate future.

“We are always concerned about retaining employees in all school positions,” Hartnett said. “Part of our challenge is where we are – rural yet in striking distance of Maine’s more urban and suburban communities. We have had to be vigilant in our hiring and retention practices. Recently we have been quite stable with our teacher retention.”

Historically, Oxford Hills has had to compete with coastal and urban districts that offer broader lifestyle opportunities and higher pay for younger educators starting their careers. SAD 17 has always worked hard to overcome that obstacle. Hartnett said some of the most difficult roles to fill have not been teachers.

“School nurses and librarians have become hard to hire,” he said. “I think for nurses, they may be drawn towards more challenging settings in the health care field, with better pay.

“The librarian position is tough, Hartnett said. “Certification for a librarian is something like a 38-credit advanced degree. The education and knowledge requirements are difficult to achieve. School librarians have to have the obvious literacy experience but also data base, media and technology skills.”

Oxford Hills saw two librarians leave the district at the end of the last school year. One retired and a second moved to a new career opportunity in the history field. Hartnett was able to fill one of the positions with a person who is conditionally certified but is continuing to recruit and interview for the other.

“Fortunately, we have not seen an exodus of educators in response to the difficulties brought on by COVID-19 and distance learning, not yet,” he said. “Exit interviews at this point indicate that people leaving for reasons other than retirement or their own job change are for other personal reasons, such as a spouse getting a job that requires moving. So far, the pandemic has not been a reason for anyone to quit.”

As far as educators, science and math teachers continue to be the jobs hardest to fill but Hartnett said he just made a strong hire for high school biology. Special education teachers are also difficult to find.

“It takes a lot of training and hard work to be one,” he said. “And the amount of documentation they need to stay on top of for compliance adds to the pressure.”

Hartnett said one area where school closures have had direct impact is the experience for student-teachers, where educators in the final phase of their certification were not able to get their in-class experience.

“This was a difficult thing, but COVID-19 actually became a unique training ground for a new generation of teachers,” Hartnett said. “They had to adapt to the remote model and new approaches to communicate effectively with both students and parents. So they are already bringing a different experience that we will need going forward.” Hartnett said SAD 17 has recently hired five newly-certified educators, which is on par with last year.

In Oxford Hills the district has maintained about a 10% turnover rate for employees.

“If you look at having to hire 30 positions districtwide a year it seems like a lot,” he said. “But our district is so big – we have 600 employees through eight communities, so it’s not that much, especially considering there are sometimes new positions that we hire for.

“Overall I would say that our teacher vacancy situation is in pretty good shape. We are satisfied with both our experienced hires and the newly qualified just starting their careers that we have hired recently.”

Hartnett believes that teachers are anxious to do their jobs in the classroom. And administrators are anxious to see it done in a way that protects students, their families and educators.

“I have not seen any outcry that teachers are not going to return, but all school employees need clarity on how it will be executed and managed,” he said. “The return has to be carefully managed and we have to be ready to respond to changing guidelines. Educators expect that the proper measures will be in place, whether learning is at school or done remotely.”

While Maine DOE has conducted several surveys, SAD 17 has too been reaching to local stakeholders to gauge what the community has to say about education during continued COVID-19 concerns.

“We are seeing about a 50% response rate to our own surveys, which is good,” Hartnett said. “And the answers run the gamut that you would expect. There are those who wish to see it sooner and those who are more cautious about reopening.”

While Hartnett cannot yet predict what school in September will look like, the common thread across the spectrum from survey-takers is that the school experience be as normal for students as possible.

Among the many things to consider to restart school is how who foot traffic will be managed in the hallways, classroom sizes, and what to do about the times where students are used to coming together, like going out for recess or gathering at lunch. And administrators have to prepare a concurrent plan to continue remote learning if necessary.

“I expect that work for Oxford Hills schools reopening will be different than in urban or even suburban areas,” Hartnett said. “We are extremely fortunate that community spread of the virus is not a critical issue here and that this far we have been able to mitigate infection rates.”

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