State News

Area schools are seeking workers: paras, subs, janitors all in short supply

By John Flowers/Addison County Independent

Years of college and graduate school plus decades in front of classes have prepared Principal Tracey Harrington for her job leading instruction for scores of students at Ripton Elementary School.

On Monday, though, she found herself not in the classroom but in the lunchroom. She was filling a hole in the food service staff that day by serving meals to the children.

“It’s a struggle every day,” Harrington said. “Yesterday morning I was cleaning (because of an absence of custodial staff). Others here were cleaning the bathroom and emptying garbage.”

She’s not complaining and is appreciative of how community members have pitched in to smooth out the staffing snafus, which she said are more serious this year than in past ones.

Public schools have been hit by the same worker shortage that has affected most other Vermont employers. All local school districts are having difficulty hiring support staff and substitute teachers.

The Addison Northwest School District was able to hire only 25% of the substitutes it needed in November. The Vergennes-area district is advertising and searching for a long-term substitute for a Special Education position and a second-grade teacher, and it has been doing so since September.

It has had four unfilled paraeducators jobs since last year, and is currently advertising for two of them. Plus, three maintenance jobs have been looking for workers since last year and two more maintenance workers have recently resigned. “We have had trouble hiring for custodial positions and often times paras as well,” said ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule. “Also sub shortages continue to plague us.”

The Mount Abraham Unified School District has a very small list of available substitutes; plus, it has three educational assistant positions posted and has seen “very few applicants,” according to MAUSD Assistant Superintendent Catrina DiNapoli.

“We’re working tremendously hard to re-assign where we need to in order to ensure support for our schools and the students we serve,” she said.

The larger Addison Central School District (ACSD) needs to fill around 20 support staff positions over a wide range of custodial, nutrition, paraprofessional and behavioral interventionist positions.

“It’s been pretty consistent over the past year and a half, and it’s been a national issue,” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows explained. “I’ve said at a number of board meetings that some of our support staff positions have been more challenging to fill.”

And the list could be even longer.

“Some positions were open, remained unfilled and we didn’t re-post them,” Burrows said.

The district — which runs nine schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge — has sweetened wages for some support positions in an effort to make them more attractive to what has been a shallow labor pool. And the ACSD is offering financial incentives to substitute teachers who agree to work multiple days per week. Subs receive $110 for working one day per week, with compensation rising to $150 daily for those who agree to a five-day work week —or $750 for the week.

Subs go through a short training period and make themselves available at their own discretion.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have some school closures due to absences when cold and flu season hits hard,” said Superintendent Soule.

A sub is contracted for short stints, whereas a paraprofessional is a district employee.

School districts employ different kinds of paraprofessionals, whose tasks include collaborating with teachers, supporting class instruction, supporting and supervising students with schoolwork and addressing students’ social emotional needs. Some are assigned as one-on-one helpers, working with individual students. Other paraprofessionals work across several classrooms supporting small learning groups and assisting classroom teachers in multiple ways, Burrows noted.

As district employees, paraprofessionals are entitled to benefits that include health insurance, dental insurance, paid sick and holiday time and a contribution to their retirement fund. Starting pay in ACSD is $16-$24 per hour.

Custodians are also entitled to district benefits. Starting pay is $15.45-$21.65 per hour.

Strain on staff

The personnel shortage has put more pressure on existing staff to do more with less help.

“We’ve had to be fairly flexible,” Burrows said. “We’ve had to think in different ways about how we provide the same level of support to students without those positions being able to be filled.”

Harrington said regular staff at Ripton Elementary help out where they can, and the central office coordinates school meals and custodial services across the rural schools in the district.

Public schools’ hiring woes don’t include school bus drivers, but a shortage in that category has forced occasional route cancellations. Bet-Cha Transit — the county’s school transportation provider — doesn’t have enough drivers.

“If we had a transportation company, those positions would be hard to fill, too,” Burrows said, as is the case in other districts.

Bet-Cha has an online post advertising for bus drivers, offering a $1,500 sign-on bonus, “competitive wages and paid training to receive school bus license.”

“This is a great job for stay-at-home parents, retirees and anybody looking for extra income,” the solicitation reads. “Family friendly — bring your kids to work with you!”

Burrows was asked to assess the pandemic’s role in the ACSD’s current hiring woes.

“We’ve seen what [the pandemic]has done to the number of employees… in our workforce,” Burrows said. “We’re watching to see when we might recover back to where we were. People talk about housing and increasing costs making it more challenging for people to move here. We’re hopeful and watching, trying to determine if the landscape is slowly moving back to a stronger labor force. I’m not sure.”

Fortunately, not all the staffing news has been bad in the ACSD.

“Most of our teaching positions are filled,” Burrows said. “We’re fully staffed at the elementary level. Given where we thought we might be, we’ve started the year feeling like we had made some strides filling positions and felt fairly strong in starting.”

In Ripton, Harrington is thankful for the help that community members are providing to the school, and the work of the staff that they do have. But, she said, day to day administrators find themselves having to fill staffing holes.

“The students have had a more stable start to the year — less disruptions — than in past years (during the pandemic), but behind the scenes it’s a daily scramble,” she said.

“It works, but it definitely takes away from the consistency students need.”

Editor’s note: Reporters Andy Kirkaldy, Marin Howell and John S. McCright contributed to this story.

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