By Curt Peterson
School district administrators are normally under pressure as opening day roars toward them like a freight train. Picture General George Washington astride his white horse, circulating among shivering troops before the Battle of Trenton, discussing strategy, boosting morale, everything at stake. That kind of pressure.
Add the reemergence of Covid in Vermont, fluctuating guidance from the Agency of Education as the prevalence of the virus change, resistance to that guidance from parents, and strained resources to deal with it all. Including a shortage of available educators and staff members.
Sherry Sousa, Windsor Central Unified Union School District (WCUUSD) superintendent, said in a perfect world she would have about 10 additional people when the doors open on Sept. 1.
“Five would be teachers, one in food service, one in facilities, and one athletic trainer,” Sousa said. “We are currently hiring two more paraeducators.”
“Right now we have all the people we need to run the schools,” she said with relief. “We’ve moved people around and they’ve taken on additional responsibilities to make it work. We had to be very creative — it wasn’t business-as-usual.”
WCUUSD has increased enrollment for the second year in a row. Almost all seven participating towns in the district have larger populations than a decade ago, as shown in the 2020 census.
“People are still signing up their kids today,” Sousa said.
Nicki Buck is the chair of the Hartland Elementary School (HES) board, and serves on the board of the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU). “It was very tight,” Buck said, “but we were able to hire for all the teacher positions except a couple in the specialized education department.”
They would like to hire one more person for gym, two for art and two for music.
“We wanted to make sure we filled the teaching positions first,” she explained.
She said HES principal Christine Bourne is very happy with the choices they were able to make when filling the posts.
HES has between 260 and 270 students in 10 grades (pre-Kindergarten through Grade Eight), and is “down a bit” this year over last. They still have two educators for each elementary grade except one — 17 total, Buck said.
Compared to some of the worst-case scenarios, such as Springfield, which, according to an Aug. 30 Valley News article, is still short 36 teachers and staff members, WCUUSD and HES are in good shape. But getting there was a struggle.
Both Sousa and Buck cited housing as a major challenge in hiring.
HES attracted a teacher from Minnesota who really wanted to move to Vermont. She called and said she couldn’t find a place to live closer than 45 minutes from Hartland, and that was too far.
Principal Bourne wasn’t about to let the teacher get away — she worked her network and found the teacher housing right in Hartland.
“We also actually lost a teacher who had committed to us, just one month ago, because of the housing issue,” Buck said. “It was one of the things that made us late in the hiring process.”
“We lost two candidates who couldn’t find affordable housing,” Sousa told us. “We’ve been able to help younger teachers find places, but for families wanting to move here it’s a different story.”
Sousa did the teacher training this year and came away very enthusiastic about the level of expertise the 13 new hires in the district bring with them.
“And they’re coming from pretty far away,” she said. “I trained one from Oregon, one from Spain, and another who had been teaching in England.”
For WCUUSD, money wasn’t an issue — the district is using Covid funds from the federal government to finance their response to student body growth.
“The pool of candidates has shrunk,” Sousa lamented. “We used to have 50 candidates applying for each position. Now we’re lucky if we have 10.”
Buck agreed, and both she and Sousa cited the aging national population as a factor, specifically in Vermont, as a growing number of teachers are retiring, some earlier than the traditional age because of added pandemic-related stresses.