LEWISTON — Presidents of seven teachers’ unions in Franklin, Oxford and Androscoggin counties sent a letter to the Sun Journal this week, spelling out in stark terms the many travails of trying to educate students in the age of COVID. 

“Educators are burning out,” according to the letter. “Fast. Teachers are working long, unsustainable hours to provide the best services possible, given the situation and many are leaving the profession early. Our students are suffering from the lack of efficiency of learning in hybrid and remote systems, disconnection from their peers and teachers, and a host of social and emotional issues due to the pandemic. Support staff are deeply concerned they will be laid off if lockdowns return. Everything is uncertain and the stress in our schools is palpable.” 

The letter, titled “What’s Really Happening Inside Our Schools,” is signed by eight educators from seven associations across western Maine. Doug Hodum, president of the Mt. Blue Education Association, said in a phone interview that the group felt the letter was necessary in part to let other educators know that they share common problems. 

“We felt like it was a good idea for us to have conversations as local leaders and discuss what we were facing,” Hodum said. “It felt like this was a good way to bring us together but also to inform the communities that we’re working in to show that it’s not isolated. We often have times of feeling very insular in our community and not necessarily recognizing the fact that two towns over, someone who might be in a different school district is facing exactly the same thing.” 

In the letter, the writers describe the hardships of teaching amid the day-to-day issues brought about by COVID-19. 

“The uncertainty of how long the current situation will last weighs heavily on all those in our schools,” according to the letter, “and the effects of these changes is taking a toll.” 

Hodum said that while some members of the local communities are aware of the difficulties within the education system, many others are not, and the letter aims to inform them. 

“It’s more challenging than it has ever been,” Hodum said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information out there about what we are facing and how we’re struggling across the state. We are trying to just bring to light what those conditions are and the things that we continue to need in order to be able to provide essential services to our students.” 

“Some  schools are doing some of these things really well,” said Judith Lashman, president of the Tri-Town Education Association of School Administrative District 52 in Turner, in a separate email. “But there are problems that need to be addressed. Teachers aren’t allowed to bargain about educational policy, and some school boards have been willing to be more collaborative than others in terms of setting up how things will work.” 

According to the group letter, educators in western Maine believe the following key items are needed from local and state leaders.  

“Each of our districts is unique,” the letter states; “some districts are handling these issues better than others.” 

Listed are eight points the letter authors believe should be the standard for all western Maine schools. 

• More Time to Help our Students. “We simply do not have enough hours in the day to perform the follow-up our students need. Some districts have implemented a ‘fully remote day’ as part of their hybrid model, this time is often consumed by mandatory meetings. Administrators need to provide staff with maximum time to plan, to provide students with feedback, and to communicate with our support staff; adding a few workshop days here and there is not enough.” 

• Remote-only Teachers for Remote Learning. “In some districts the same teachers are often teaching in-person and remotely, making it more difficult to give students the one-on-one attention they need and deserve. When more staff are available to provide direct support to remote learners, students are more likely to succeed.”

Flexibility for Creativity. “We are the experts in education. We need to be able to be selective and make good choices based on our students’ individual needs because this is not ‘business as usual.’ Autonomy and respect are needed now more than ever.”

• Removal of Testing Requirements. “Anything that does not directly provide instructional value to students and does not increase student learning or promote student safety should be set aside, for now, in favor of instruction that focuses on student success.”

Streamlining of Evaluation Requirements. “Teachers need support now, not punitive discipline. We are in favor of a system that helps provide guided feedback to help improve hybrid teaching but not in favor of a discipline that uses an evaluation tool that was not intended for pandemic teaching and learning.” 

• Support Staff Job Security. “Teachers cannot do their jobs without support staff, and their jobs should be guaranteed regardless of the learning model being used.” 

• Keep Students and Staff Safe. The Department of Education’s “safety requirements should be treated as an absolute minimum and districts should strive to keep students and staff safe as the winter months set in. Adequate PPE should be affirmatively provided to both students and staff. Adult sized masks don’t fit kid sized faces.”

Work with Us.

“As simplistic as possible, these eight points have come from the past three months of the experience of educating Western Maine students in hybrid, in person and remote settings,” Lewiston Education Association President Allison Lytton wrote in an email on Thursday. “While some districts have been open to educator feedback and have either explored or implemented changes that offer solutions to some of the eight points, other districts have not been responsive. The intent of this public letter is to show struggling educators that they are not alone. The letter also aims to inform the public of the realities that are occurring within their local schools.

“District administrators and school committees, as well as the Maine Department of Education need to know that the issues being brought up in labor management conversations, negotiations, at school committee meetings and in other forums at local levels are not unique to any one district,”  Lytton wrote. “Best practice does not change when you cross a county or town line. Every Maine educator is giving their all to provide the highest quality of educational services to their students while dealing with unprecedented conditions, within their own schools and communities.

“The Maine DOE had a great start in supporting students and educators with the Framework for Returning to In Person Instruction, released in August,” she continued. “The fact that the contents were mandates and not simply suggestions, highly encouraged local districts to remain in compliance. With that said, it may be time for an update.”

The educators described the hardships imposed by COVID as historic — during their careers, they have never seen anything like it.

“Teachers, whether they are veteran educators or new teachers, all report that they have never worked harder nor put in more hours than they are this year,” Lashman wrote. “The remote Wednesdays we have provide some time for prep and planning, around the times we are connecting with students and helping struggling learners, but because they are deep-cleaning days for the schools we don’t have access to the buildings. This makes it harder to plan and support students because often our resources aren’t where we need them. 

“I think for me the fact that there is so much unknown, and that just as we think we have things figured out, things change,” Lashman continued. “People need to be understanding of the fact that we’re all doing the best we can with what we have in front of us today. Teachers really just want to do what’s best for their students and be treated as the professionals they are. 

“The ever changing needs of the pandemic add to an unpredictable workload,” Lashman wrote, “and add to stress. The remote days are hard for students as well. Many of them struggle with trying to accomplish their remote work and figure out a schedule. Teachers try to support students on those days as well, but have in-person students to focus on, so it’s always a balancing act.” 

The group letter concludes that the schools where things are going most smoothly right now are those where staff and administration are working closely together to develop reopening and remote learning plans. 

“Educators know what is best for our kid,” the letter states. “Please don’t shut us out of the conversation.”

The letter is signed by:

Allison Lytton, Lewiston Education Association, Lewiston

Courtney Pierce, Auburn Education Association, Auburn

Doug Hodum, Mt. Blue Education Association, Farmington

Nathan Harnden, RSU 73 Education Association, Livermore Falls

Judith Lashman, Tri-Town Education Association, Turner

Renee Charette and Tim O’Connor, Telstar Education Association, Bethel

Heidi Broomhall, Dirigo Education Association, Dixfield

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