SKOWHEGAN — Angel Bellavance has cried at her desk more times than she can count this school year.

Bellavance has even contemplated walking out of the classroom.

“More times than I can count (this year) I have sat in class, crying, asking, ‘Can I really keep doing this?’ It’s not what a teacher wants to feel,” the Skowhegan Area Middle School teacher said. “But we do this because it’s our mission on Earth; it’s what we are meant to do.”

Across central Maine, teachers like Bellavance are reporting increased fatigue as they resume teaching in classrooms even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to make this academic year unlike any other in their teaching careers.

Bellavance, who teaches reading enrichment for seventh and eighth grade students in Maine School Administrative District 54, is balancing the expectation that after a year of remote instruction the return to the classroom means a return to business as usual when the reality is quite different, and teachers are being pulled in different directions.

“We are all expected to do better,” she said. “We have to be back to normal, and (we) might have to wear masks. (Parents) expected everything else to be normal, but it’s far from the truth.”

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Schools across the state have reported a chronic shortage of bus drivers as well as a shortage of substitute teachers and educational technicians since the start of the school year. At the same time, classrooms are once again full because in-person learning is encouraged by the Maine Center for Disease Control this year if possible.

So even as teachers are using planning time to ensure desks are 6 feet apart and teach students who are in school, they are also on short notice preparing lesson plans to send home with the student equal to what is being taught in class.

“On a moment’s notice, we are being asked to adapt that lesson, to have it be meaningful for a student who is now on Zoom and probably got sent home the day before with no materials,” Bellavance said. “We still have kids who don’t have reliable internet, some don’t have support at home. And to top it all off, we don’t have subs.”

In Regional School Unit 2, Jennifer Bowie Merrill, a teacher at Marcia Buker Elementary School in Richmond,  said teaching younger students on Zoom when they can’t have the same hands-on experience as their classmates who are in the classroom is a hardship.

“Stressed is an understatement,” Bowie Merrill said.

While she’s happy that students have returned to the classroom, she said she wishes people didn’t feel like schools are failing children academically.

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“Teachers feel pressure to catch kids up academically when right now we need to meet them where they are at academically and socially,” she said.

Teachers and school administrators have also reported that the transition back to the structure of a traditional school setting has been hard for students, and that’s reflected in increased disciplinary measures.

Last month, school administrators in the Augusta public school system reported 108 suspensions in the first two months of the school year. At the time, Jeff Ramich, assistant principal at Cony Middle School, said the problem is likely from students having to relearn appropriate behaviors as a result of missing school for the past two years.

“It’s behaviors in kids we have never seen behavioral issues in,” Bellavance said. “Lashing out, physically and verbally. It’s all really overwhelming and it’s emotionally draining.”

Courtney Angelosante

That can be the result of a range of different factors, according to Courtney Angelosante, a lecturer at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine and the Positive Behavior Intervention Supports state coordinator for the state Department of Education.

PBIS is an approach that schools use to promote school safety and good behavior.

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While the increase in aggression and defiance is easy to see, Angelosante said, internal behavior, like sadness or loneliness, might not be as noticeable. Both types of behavior are

issues among students during this time, and parents who could be experiencing financial hardships, a death in the family, or sickness, might not have the time to help students with remote learning or in addressing such behaviors.

“We aren’t in the same place we were two years ago, but now we are asked to respond to a series of stresses that are very severe,” she said. “Think about specifically the stress and the challenge in teaching in responding to behaviors … It’s probably the worst I’ve seen as a behavior analyst, and we are doing that with a diminished workforce, an extreme special education shortage across the state, we are doing more with less staff.”

It’s a major concern, she said.

On top of all that, the pandemic is not over — cases across the state remain high and in Kennebec County, the highest number of new cases since the start of the pandemic was reported last week.

“The teachers that are working are responding still to quarantine measures to COVID-19,” Angelosante said. “They might have students they are responsible for in person and still care for those at home in quarantine and want to make sure (students) don’t lose ground and have teaching materials.”

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Bellavance does not see the issue ending until the pandemic is over, mainly because of the continued disruptions and absentees caused by students who either contract COVID-19, or have to quarantine.

“Until something changes, we have to follow CDC guidelines, we are constantly sending kids home,” she said. “Truly, the only sense of normal is rebuilding when the pandemic is over, but it’s in complete control over us now.”

Angelosante thinks there can be hope through making small changes. She suggests prioritizing school relationships, connections and well-being at the foundation of everything.

“In all of the darkness and issues and struggles the pandemic brought on, I am hopeful,” she said. “Maybe the bright light is here and we will remember what’s important and there are relationships being formed and that being in a classroom where laughter and engagement is really powerful, and that’s possible.”

She recommended school administrators conduct a school climate survey to see where staff is at and to find areas to pinpoint support. Because schools are still in the middle of the pandemic that could look like a brainstorming process, or it might be turning teacher workshop days into teacher wellness days.

Raising wages of substitute teachers might work too to attract more people to spread the work, she said, although districts like RSU 2 and the Gardiner-area School Administrative District 11 have tried that and still have shortages.

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Angelosante emphasized the importance of rebuilding what it means to be a community — an aspect some students, and teachers, might have forgotten in their time away from a normal classroom.

Part of that is helping teachers to understand when they need help and how to get it, and recognizing the signs and signals to tell they are struggling, and when and how educators reach out and seek support, she said.

Bellavance said she finds her hope in small ways — last week, on one of her harder days, a student brought her flowers. Another day, a student noticed she was having a hard day and asked how she was.

“There is stuff still there,” she said. “And I’m trying hard not to give up on it.”

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