Staff shortages ‘adding a layer of stress’ at area school districts

  • Teacher Shelley Rice works with her students at the Athol Community Elementary School on Monday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Teacher Shelley Rice works with her students at the Athol Community Elementary School on Monday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • An empty administrative assistant desk sits idle at left in the office at the Athol Community Elementary School on Monday, with Jennifer Brailey, seated, working with Principal Shannon White-Cleveland. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Students spread out in the gymnasium/cafeteria at the Athol Community Elementary School on Monday. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Published: 12/6/2021 7:35:11 PM
Modified: 12/6/2021 7:34:43 PM

Schools across the region are experiencing staffing shortages with more severity than in past years, creating an additional layer of stress as staff and administrators try fill the gaps.

The situation is dire in some cases, said Pioneer Valley Regional School District interim Superintendent Patricia Kinsella, with staff members in her district working well outside of their job descriptions to keep their schools afloat.

“We have principals who are mopping floors and cleaning toilets,” Kinsella said.

The local reality is far from unique, as districts across the nation face staffing shortages made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, more than 75% of district leaders and principals say they’re experiencing at least moderate staffing shortages in their buildings this year.

District leaders in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region spoke to a need in particular for support staff, custodial and cafeteria workers, and substitute teachers.

In Greenfield, school officials have spoken publicly several times of the staffing shortages in the district. According to its online job posting site, the district is still in need of special education teachers, instructional assistants and substitutes.

“One of the challenges we’re facing districtwide is when we post positions, sometimes staff from one building apply to the other, and when we accept that transfer request, we create a vacancy in another place,” Greenfield School Department Superintendent Christina DeBarge previously noted.

Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski, superintendent of Ralph C. Mahar Regional and Union 73 school districts, said she is in need of two long-term substitute positions, a special education teacher and a special education paraprofessional, as well as substitutes for teachers, nurses and cafeteria staff.

“The principals who have been here are saying it’s crazy,” she said. “It’s very difficult to find people, and people who come in aren’t necessarily staying.”

Darcy Fernandes, superintendent of the Athol-Royalston Regional School District, said in her district, she’s found it particularly difficult to fill special education and mathematics teacher positions.

“We’ve hired an additional person to work with our special education teachers coming in, so if they’re on an emergency waiver, they’re building their competency,” Fernandes said, referring to a state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) COVID-19 policy that temporarily waives certain requirements for hiring. “We’ve done the same thing with mathematics. … You have to provide support for them.”

Superintendent Darius Modestow of the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts said the districts are having trouble retaining teachers and finding people to fill those gaps.

“We don’t get the applicant pools like we used to and turnover’s the highest it’s ever been in our district,” he said. “The market’s tight.”

Modestow estimated the districts are facing “three times as much” turnover than in normal years and said much of it is due to teachers “retiring, leaving the profession and rotating from one school to the next.”

While the districts are struggling with teachers and substitutes, Modestow said they have been lucky with custodians and cafeteria staff.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Modestow said. “We’re not as hurting as the other districts.”

In part, Teahan-Zielinski attributes the difficulty to fill positions to fewer people “in the pipeline” pursuing careers in education.

“For those people who might have thought about (education) as a career choice, and who have their own children and were home with them, they decided working with kids is a little bit more difficult than anticipated,” she said, reflecting on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic may have had on people’s decisions to enter education.

Additionally, she said, in the rural communities and hilltowns, where the population is less dense, there is less interest in the area for work.

“You don’t necessarily get people who want to travel out to this area,” she explained. “It’s difficult.”

A shortage of substitutes

In Orange, Teahan-Zielinski said the difficulty in finding substitutes is one the biggest challenges her districts face.

“We’re resorting to teachers covering other teachers’ classes, which is not ideal, especially at the high school level when you have an English teacher covering a science class, for example,” she said.

In addition to the typical requests of staff — family medical leave or maternity leave, for example — schools also have to account for COVID-19-related coverage (including following quarantine and isolation protocols, when necessary), said Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts.

“For the staff and administration, it’s adding a layer of stress, really, that’s happening every day,” said Stanton, who estimated coverage requests have likely doubled or tripled this year. “In addition to substitutes … we’re having to reach out to staff to cover classrooms, or schedule them during their prep periods to be with students. It’s stretching everybody really thin.”

Every day, principals are figuring out how to cover classrooms, or how to cover custodians, she said. Last week, Hawlemont Regional School in Charlemont was forced to close for a day, with administrators citing staffing shortages as the cause.

“In both districts, we’re really close every day to not having the staff we need to open safely,” Stanton, noting it’s especially a concern at the small elementary schools, where the staff size is already small. “I have principals texting me at 4 a.m.; they’re not sure they can open. It feels like any day, there’s going to be a school that’s not going to be able to open because of safety or … not having enough staff to serve the building.”

Stanton credited the people last week who reached out “in really critical areas” to fill in and substitute, allowing the building to reopen the following day.

“But it is day-to-day,” she said. “And that puts a real strain on the system.”

Competing with the market

One of the challenges district leaders are dealing with is “finding the finances to support the market,” according to Fernandes.

“We’re losing people to salaries,” said the Athol-Royalston Regional School District superintendent. “We’re having people come and tell us, ‘We’re getting $10,000 more by working (elsewhere).’”

The Six Town Regionalization Planning Board, an organization currently deliberating the feasibility of merging Gill-Montague Regional School District and Pioneer Valley Regional School District, has identified staff shortages as a factor in its decision-making. The board linked declining student enrollment with the issue of job vacancies.

“When your enrollment drops, it puts pressure on the superintendent to create efficiencies,” said Greg Snedeker, who serves as one of the board’s Gill representatives.

Montague representative Lynn Reynolds, who also served for 10 years on the town’s Finance Committee, said regionalization would enable schools to add more courses to the curriculum. This, in turn, would hypothetically increase student retention rates, retaining around $5,000 in state funding represented by each student that could be put toward paying staff.

“I did see what happened when budgets were cut. It did lead to the firing of teachers,” Reynolds said of her Finance Committee experience, acknowledging that this wouldn’t necessarily be the case for the Gill-Montague or Pioneer Valley regional school districts.

Reynolds added that regionalization might lessen the severity of staff shortages because fewer superintendents and principals would be needed. Pioneer Superintendent Kinsella said during a Nov. 18 School Committee meeting that the district is facing a labor shortage, particularly in roles covered by Pioneer Valley Association of Support Professionals, attributing it to an issue on the national scale. She framed instructional assistants, food workers, custodians and substitutes as being particularly in demand.

In response, the district researched what surrounding schools pay their staff and decided to raise its minimum staff wage to $16 per hour in the hope of appeasing employees, improving the retention rate and garnering interest from potential applicants.

“There was a unanimous agreement that we needed to do better and wanted to do better by our employees,” Kinsella said.

The plan is to increase wages for new workers in food service from $12.49 per hour to $16 per hour, with seasoned food service workers already making $16 per hour or more receiving a $1 per hour raise. Food service substitute wages will increase from $13.50 per hour to $16 per hour, custodian substitutes from $14.47 per hour to $16 per hour, nurses from $30 per hour to $32.50 per hour, teachers and assistants from $95 per day to $110 per day, and teachers and assistants after 20 days in the same position from $100 per day to $120 per day.

Kinsella also said the district is planning a social media campaign to advertise the wage increases in hopes of stirring interest from the community.

“It’s one thing to raise these wages. It’s another thing to let people know about it,” she said. “We need more people in our community who can fill these substitute roles.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-772-0261, ext. 261 or Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.


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