For many educators, it felt like the Christmas break could not come fast enough.

Despite early hopes for a near-normal year with the availability of the COVID-19 vaccines last spring, the return to school brought unprecedented challenges.

Schools have faced disruptions caused by increasing case numbers, staffing shortages and, more recently, concern for school safety. Educators, support staff members and those with ties to area schools say the school year so far has been more taxing emotionally and logistically than expected.

Angry calls and threatening messages from community members. Students who lash out. Heightened workloads.

“What we’re asking our staff and our administration to do is — it’s big,” said Mary Martin, chairwoman of the Regional School Unit 16 school board. “And they’re doing outstanding. They’re doing above and beyond. But it doesn’t take away how hard it is.”

The Sun Journal asked several educators to share their work experiences from the past few months.


Kristina Myers, McMahon Elementary School

Kristina Myers works Tuesday with second-grader Everett Hutchins, 7, at the resource room at McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

This school year has been far more difficult than the last, according to Kristina Myers, a special education teacher at McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston.

“I challenge you to find five teachers who would not want to go back to last year,” she said. “It was hard and we cried. We did not cry every day. There are teachers crying every day.”

Teachers are facing enormous workloads as they teach students in person while also managing quarantined and recently returned students, Myers said.

Teachers have struggled to meet their own standards while being pulled in several different directions, causing them to feel they are failing themselves and their students at times. Poor student behavior has made their jobs more difficult.

“Usually, the norm is that in each grade, there’s a kid,” she said in a November interview. “And sometimes, parents will refer to them as ‘the kid.’ There’s usually one a grade where they really struggle with their behavior or their emotions. This year, there’s more than one a class.”

Myers said she has seen students scream, swear and run away from class. Some throw desks or chairs. She also said  teachers have been hurt after being hit, stabbed with pencils or bitten by students.


The trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has led kids to act out, she said.

“The major things we see with trauma is fear. And when someone’s afraid, they cannot learn,” Myers said. “You need to feel safe and happy to learn. And when kids are not safe and when they are not happy, they can’t learn.”

It has been a tough school year and, at times, some parents have made their situation more difficult.

Myers recalled a November incident in which a parent yelled and swore at Myers and a nurse in the school lobby because the parent’s ill child needed to leave school early. That child was standing nearby with other children during the conflict.

“We completely understand parents’ frustration with having to be called in the middle of the day to come get your kid,” Myers said. “Just don’t yell at us. We don’t make the rules.”

Myers asked that parents think more about what they say when near their children. In her experience, some comments that seem benign can cause more stress.


“Kids hear what you talk about,” she said. “If you say in front of your child, ‘Vaccines are going to kill people,’ they’re going to worry about their teacher dying.”

Myers said parents must talk to children about emotions and share positive messages, especially related to school.

Mary Martin, Regional School Unit 16

Mary Martin, chairwoman of the Regional School Unit 16 school board, sits recently at Superintendent Kenneth Heeley’s office in Poland. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

The past two years have presented challenges that educators have never faced before, according to Mary Martin, a retired school teacher and administrator with almost 40 years of experience.

For the past nine years, Martin has served on the Regional School Unit 16 school board, now as chairwoman. In the fall, Martin said the school board implemented stricter rules to manage disruptive behavior by members of the public.

“We’ve had to really look at our ‘public comment’ part of our meeting and try to find that balance of welcoming, being genuine listeners, but, at the same time, making sure that we stay focused on our agenda and the work that we need to get done,” she said.

But hateful messages have not been isolated to public comments at meetings.


“There are times when I’ve gotten emails that I didn’t answer because they really weren’t asking a question,” Martin said. “There have been some that were inappropriate and would have been difficult to to answer.”

School board members have tried to keep the comments in perspective, according to Martin. They understand people are facing unceasing stress.

“As a board, we do understand that it might feel personal, but it’s not personal,” she said. “It’s about what’s happening within their families, and with their kids which are, you know, there’s nothing more important to somebody than that.”

Part of Martin’s job this fall has been helping the community understand the role of the school board.

“I think people sometimes assume that as board members, we have control over everything that happens,” she said. “We’re trying to help them understand that we’re working with Maine (the Center for Disease Control & Prevention) and the (state) Department of Education, and we have control over part of how we deal with COVID, (but) we don’t have control over all of it.”

As example, she said, the school board can change masking policies and choose whether to implement pooled testing programs. It, however, cannot change state quarantine protocols.


“We always want to be role models for students,” Martin said. “We recognize that our communities are divided on a number of issues, and we would like our school board meetings to also be an example to our students that board and community members can deal with controversial issues in a civilized manner and can demonstrate some mutual respect for one another.”

James Black, Mt. Blue Middle School

Mt. Blue Middle School Principal James Black gives a student a thumbs-up in the cafeteria in September 2020. Back then, Black said he most missed not being able to sit with students at lunch and “listen to all their stories.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo

Making connections with parents has been one positive outcome from this fall, according to Mt. Blue Middle School Principal James Black.

“I was at the school the other day and I called probably 30 parents who are upset,” he said. “I didn’t get off the phone with one of them, who was upset after talking with them. They just want to hear a voice. They just want to be reassured. They want to hear you know, yes, this is frustrating, but this is what we got to do.”

It is hard to interpret tone in an email or social media post, Black said. Speaking with parents over the telephone has helped many understand other perspectives. Still, not every parent has been receptive.

“At least they understand where we’re coming from, and it’s not my choice or the school district’s choice,” Black said. “We’re following CDC guidance. We’re following state guidance. So it’s just what it is.”

As with other schools across Maine, the Mt. Blue school district has struggled with staffing shortages.


“We had a hard time filling positions over the summer, and that’s been difficult,” Black said. “I had a lot of veteran staff at the middle school who chose to retire last summer just because another year of teaching in COVID was just going to be too much for them.”

Staff members, including Black, have stepped up to help keep the middle school running, filling in for educators and support staff members.

“Sometimes, people think, ‘Oh, the the principal is talking with parents and dealing with teachers,’” Black said, “but it’s also making sure the floor is clean, the gym is auto-scrubbed and there’s paper towel in the paper towel dispensers — stuff like that.

“Keeping the school running is not just keeping professional staff and parents happy. It’s the whole gamut there.”

Since the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year, Black has asked staff members and the rest of the school community to be patient with the shortages and COVID-19 protocols.

“I always say, you know, it doesn’t take long to go down the rabbit hole of negativity,” he said. “I take pride in the climate of the middle school, just trying to keep people positive and happy because it is a tough time and it’s very easy to look at the negative.”


Angela Delorme, Washburn Elementary School

Sean Derouche, center, and his sixth-grade classmate, David Saunders, finish helping education technician Angela Delorme with an activity Tuesday at the school store at Washburn Elementary School in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Angela Delorme, an education technician at Washburn Elementary School and president of the Auburn Education Association, said returning to full capacity this year was difficult for students and staff members.

Students came to school with a range of educational abilities. Teachers have found themselves reteaching content from the previous years for students who did not learn it through hybrid or remote learning.

Disruptions caused by quarantining and staffing shortages have made it more difficult to bring students up to the right levels, she said. With stringent curriculums that outline specific learning goals for each day and unit, it has been tough teaching students who are varied levels.

“When you can’t individualize your teaching, it makes it really difficult for students to learn,” Delorme said. “So someone who’s supposed to be a second-grade student and has certain skills, but they haven’t been in school since they were in kindergarten, there’s all these learning gaps.”

Developing an in-school mindset for students who last year took classes in a hybrid schedule, or for some, fully remote, has also been challenging.

“Teachers did a great job with what they had (last year),” Delorme said. “But because they’ve come back and there’s not that mindset, we have all these other problems, and behaviors are one of them.”


It has been more challenging getting students to learn, follow directions and speak respectfully to staff, she said.

“We not only have to teach the content,” Delorme said, “but we have to teach the socialization behaviors that they need.”

Staffing shortages have led employees to work longer hours, leaving some feeling overworked and underpaid. Delorme said it is especially important to give staff members adequate time to complete their work and prepare future lessons.

Still, Delorme said, discussions the Auburn Education Association has had with school administrators have been promising. She said it will be critical for staff members, administrators and the school committee to work collaboratively to implement creative solutions to attract new staff members, promote a healthy work environment and meet students’ needs.

Teachers who are so worried about many issues cannot devote their time to helping students be the best they can be, Delorme said.

Dave St. Hilaire, Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale

Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale head football coach Dave St. Hilaire runs practice last September in Winthrop. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo

Head coach Dave St. Hilaire said he had no idea what the months ahead would bring at the first official practice in August for the Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale football team.


“It’s one of those things where the first day of football season you say, ‘Hey guys, we didn’t get a season last year, but savor every practice because we don’t know how long we’re going to go,'” he said. “‘Are we going to get a game in? Are we going to get a full season in? Are we going to make it to the playoffs? Or is this whole thing going to get shut down again?’ That was something we had to deal with right from then.”

St. Hilaire said his team faced many challenges this fall, not all related to COVID-19. Two of its eight regular season games were cancelled due to coronavirus outbreaks, one involving his team, the other an opposing team.

St. Hilaire and several of his coaches and athletes tested positive for the virus just before the team’s final regular season game against rival Oak Hill High School, resulting in the game’s cancellation.

Winthrop/Monmouth/Hall-Dale’s first playoff game was scheduled for the following week.

“I didn’t know how that week was going to go, because if a kid was still going to have symptoms, he wasn’t going to be able to come back,” St. Hilaire said. “And when they did come back, they hadn’t practiced for almost a week.”

The team won that game against Bucksport, later falling to Foxcroft Academy in the Class D state championship game. It was the first state final in which the team had played since 2008. 


“It was a great run that we had,” St. Hilaire said. “But after missing last year — and last year, we still practiced, but it was knowing that we weren’t going to play a regular game — it was great because even if we got two games in, it was better than the year before, having nothing.”

Still, it was an odd season, he said. Even one of athletics’ simplest traditions had coaches and athletes thinking twice.

At the end of each game, teams typically lines up to shake hands. This fall, most teams dropped the practice due to concerns it could spread COVID-19. When Freeport lined up to shake hands after the semifinals, St. Hilaire said his team was at a loss.

“Half of the guys, we shook hands, and the other half didn’t quite know what to do,” he said. “It was very strange.”

Cornelia Brown, Auburn School Department

Auburn Superintendent Cornelia Brown at her office in July 2021. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

One of the biggest challenges of the current school year has been dealing with the masking controversy, according to Auburn School Department Superintendent Cornelia Brown.  

“Things looked great for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, that it would be like it was in (2019), when things were normal, before shutdown,” she said. “Then, in August of that year, the announcement came from the (state Center for Disease Control & Prevention) and then the governor that they strongly recommended masks inside buildings, and that exploded for schools because there were very strong feelings from both sides.”


The school committee first required masking in elementary schools. Then, in October, Brown implemented universal masking following an outbreak at Edward Little High School.

“I got a lot of really nasty phone calls and emails,” she said. “People came to the school board meetings to tell them what they thought about that. As a superintendent, you need to make decisions concerning the health and welfare of everybody.”

In her 25 years as a superintendent, Brown has made difficult decisions regarding budget and labor issues, at times closing schools. The polarization she has seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has been a new challenge. 

In some cases, the school has acted on constructive feedback, she said. When a parent asked the school to include data on pooled COVID-19 testing participation on the district’s dashboard, Assistant Superintendent Sue Brown began adding it each week.

As difficult as the school year has been, there have been positives, Brown said. Standardized test scores for literacy have increased an average of 15% districtwide since the fall of 2020.

“That’s the hard work of teachers putting in a new literacy program and really focusing on ensuring kids can read,” Brown said. “This is significant. My staff are amazing. Not only are they just surviving. They’re really moving forward with (teaching students), and it shows.”

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