Staff Shortages Could Cut School Week To 4 Days For Students In Special Ed
PORTLAND, Maine — Portland school officials are working on a plan to redeploy education technicians in hopes of avoiding the need to switch to four-day school weeks for some of the district’s 1,000 special education students.
But the number of unfilled jobs in the district means a disrupted school schedule is still possible, officials said last week, and that would mean extending the school year for affected students to meet the state’s minimum of 175 school days.
As the first week of the school year came to an end, more than 10% of the educational technician positions in Portland Public Schools remained unfilled and the district is particularly short on special education ed techs.
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“We are currently developing a plan to assess whether schools and programs have enough special education ed techs to operate safely, and if they do not, temporarily reassign other ed techs there to support,” the district said in a statement. “We will only move to four-day weeks if even the reassignment plan cannot cover enough vacancies in a given school or program, so we don’t yet know the potential scope or impact.”
Educator shortages are plaguing school districts from coast to coast, Maine included. And experts say the educator shortage could have significant adverse impacts on students.
“Teacher turnover and shortages are among the most critical issues in education,” according to the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute. “Teachers are the No. 1 in-school influence on student achievement, and research shows that poor quality teaching disrupts learning and has a negative impact on students’ ability to graduate from school college- and career-ready.”
Finding educators has gotten harder across the board since the onset of the pandemic, but it has been particularly challenging for districts to fill special education, mental health support and support staff positions, including ed techs.
Ed techs are usually hourly workers who can be tapped to support students with disabilities, help with behavioral management, supervise individual or small-group work and otherwise help manage classrooms.
Details of plan unclear
The majority of ed techs work to support students with disabilities, meaning those are likely the students who could suffer the most from an ed tech shortage. Portland seems to be trying to avoid that outcome in its plan to move ed techs around, but it remains unclear where ed techs would be moved from and whether students would have less support than the district initially intended.
The district provided some information about the staffing shortage last Thursday, but did not respond to questions sent in an email, including whether the district is concerned about providing students with appropriate educational opportunities, how the staffing shortage compares to last year and whether there are more special education students this year.
However, in an email about the shortage of ed techs last Wednesday, Director of Student Support Services Jesse Applegate implied that classrooms would have minimum rather than ideal levels of staffing.
“Because of the critical role that you all play in the education and care of our students, we have been considering what we would do if a school and specialized program does not have enough staff to operate safely,” he said. “This does not mean having every vacancy filled, but that we can provide adequate coverage for students.”
“We believe that the best approach in these situations will be to temporarily reassign an ed tech from another location until someone is hired, or until a set time limit is reached,” he said, adding that ed techs will only be reassigned when “absolutely necessary.”
Ed techs reluctant to speak up
Some ed techs are less than thrilled about the idea of being moved between schools and programs during the school year.
One Portland ed tech, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing fear of retribution from the school district, believes that ed techs will quit if they are forced to move into different positions during the year and said that although Applegate and other administrators say they value the work of ed techs, they do not feel that is reflected in their pay.
In Portland, ed techs are paid between $15 to $26 per hour depending on education and experience. Portland ed tech salaries are negotiated through collective bargaining. The Portland school district and union representing ed techs have yet to reach an agreement on a contract for the 2022-23 school year.
Multiple other Portland ed techs declined to speak with the Press Herald, saying they were worried about getting fired for speaking to a reporter without getting permission from the administration.
Additionally, not all ed techs are qualified to do the same work, which could complicate the district’s plan to cover vacancies by reassigning staff. There are three tiers of ed techs — I, II and III — each of which requires different levels of education and are certified to perform different tasks. For example, ed techs with Level II and III certifications are allowed to manage small groups of students without direct supervision, whereas ed techs with a Level I certification are not.
The staffing shortage is not unique to Portland and it’s not new.
“Many school districts still have a very great need (for employees),” said Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association.
A survey the association conducted in August showed many school districts with ed tech vacancies in the double digits, he said. And though schools have rapidly hired over the past few weeks, it’s clear from job postings and other advertisements that they’re still struggling.
“It’s even worse than last year,” Bailey said. “People were strapped last year, but they are more so this year.”
Bailey said school districts are doing the best they can to meet students’ needs with the staff they have and to find more employees. “They haven’t given up,” he said.
And neither has Bailey. But he said there will likely need to be significant community investment to end the educator shortage.
“I do think that higher wages are going to be necessary,” he said. “That’s going to come at a cost to school communities, but there needs to a be a reset and increased investment.”
© 2022 Portland Press Herald
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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