Principals say teacher burnout prompts staffing shortages in Waterville

WATERVILLE — Waterville Senior High School is experiencing a high level of teacher burnout and does not have enough substitutes to fill in, according to Principal Brian Laramee.

Laramee said staff members are anxious for April vacation next week because they are worn out.

The staffing shortage is not only connected to employees who are sick with COVID-19. On any given day, there can be 10 to 16 staff members out of the building for other reasons, such as other illnesses, the need for a mental health day, doctor or dentist appointments or bereavement leave, according to Laramee.

Many employees, for instance, were unable to get medical appointments earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, so they are catching up now, Laramee told the city’s Board of Education on Monday night.

On some days, only two substitute teachers are available to fill in for absent staff members, according to Laramee. On other days, there might be four substitutes.

To help fill the gap, education technicians are covering classes, teachers are giving up their preparation time to fill in for absent peers, and secretaries and administrators are filling in, he told the board.

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“It has really culminated to this level of burnout,” Laramee said.

Near the end of the 2020-21 school year, for example, more than 25 teachers said they wanted to teach summer school, but not this year, according to Laramee.

“I think at last count, I had five that signed up,” he said.

Laramee said he has contacted Colby College and other organizations in an effort to find help, and that long-term substitutes are being offered greater pay than usual.

Board member Greg Bazakas said it seems the issue is not unique to the high school, and that the staffing issue has emerged over the past couple of weeks. He asked if lifting the mask mandate in March has had anything to do with it.

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Laramee said if staff members are sick or have symptoms, but do not test positive for COVID-19, they stay home, which is the right thing to do. More staff members are calling in saying they need a mental health day or have another reason for needing time off.

Staff members who have given up their preparation time to cover other classes still need time to prepare, Laramee said, and “I think it’s caught up to us.”

“You keep burning the candle at both ends, it’s going to catch up to you, and I think that’s what’s happening,” he said.

Kim Taylor, the principal at George J. Mitchell School, echoed Laramee’s concerns, saying staffing shortages are not only a high school problem.

“We have, oftentimes, 13 staff out in a day,” Taylor said, “and I might have one substitute in the building.”

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Taylor said staff members at the Mitchell School, an elementary school, have been struggling with burnout.

“The burnout is real,” she said. “The teachers share it often, and we try to nurture them.”

There have not been many cases of COVID-19 at the school, according to Taylor, who said there were “a couple of cases” this week.

Board member Pam Trinward asked if the substitute pool for the Mitchell School is smaller than usual.

Taylor said there is a pool of six or seven substitutes, but many of them will substitute only in certain situations. She said the school has had to “call some classes out,” meaning students were asked to stay home.

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In other matters, Board Chair Joan Phillips-Sandy said the Superintendent Search Committee held four “listening sessions” for junior high and high school students, school staff and the community so that they could give input on the district’s search for a superintendent.

Phillips-Sandy, who heads up the search committee, said the city has received 13 applications for the job, and the committee expects to review them over the next two weeks.

A survey on the district’s website and placed at certain locations in the community also requested input, she said.

“There are about 90 responses so far, which is not bad, but it would be nice to get more,” Phillips-Sandy said.

The committee hopes to interview candidates in the second week of May, according to Phillips-Sandy. After that, the committee expects to present a report to the full board.

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In February, the board voted 6-0 to hire the Maine School Management Association to help with the search for a superintendent to succeed Eric Haley, who plans to retire this year.

Haley, 67, has been the superintendent in Waterville for 21 years. The Board of Education makes the final decision on superintendent hires.


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