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Vermont Principals' Association leader on current COVID surge: 'People are exhausted'

An illustration shows children in a classroom with face masks
Surging COVID transmission in Vermont is exacerbating pre-existing school staffing issues.
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Vermont has seen surging COVID-19 numbers in recent weeks, driven in part by the “stealth" omicron subvariant BA.2.

But, it's difficult to get a comprehensive view of the impact to school districts because state health officials stopped tracking infections among students in January.

To get a feel for how schools are weathering the uptick in cases, VPR’s Grace Benninghoff spoke with Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals' Association. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: The school year is winding down. Are we seeing an uptick of COVID cases within districts like we are in communities at large?

A man stands next to a door.
Jay Nichols

Jay Nichols: Yeah, I think it's fair to say that we are. The reports from principals are that they have more kids and staff out lately with COVID. As of Monday, I had three principals who were out with COVID — one of whom actually attended a meeting with me and has been supporting his school every day online. The other two I'm not sure about because I heard that from a superintendent.

Looking at the big picture, can you tell me a little bit about the staffing issues that a lot of districts are facing, and how those might be exacerbated during the current COVID surge?

It has been an issue since we came back to school this fall. It's even greater now than it was. The pandemic has exacerbated what was always kind of a tough situation, and a crisis situation in some spots in the state and some positions.

So people are exhausted; they've been dealing with this all year. And so for many of them, they've reached a saturation point. I think we've had three or four principals who have left in the middle of the year — that has never happened as long as I've been in state of Vermont. They just said, "I can't do this anymore." And I know, we've had dozens of teachers who have done the same thing.

And plenty of support staff who have just said, "Friday is my last day, I'm gonna go do something else." And oftentimes, they're the glue that keeps the school together — people that might be supervising recess duty, or the cafeteria or stepping in to sub when there's no substitutes available. Many of those positions are unfilled this year. Many people are taking jobs outside of the public school sector, mostly in the service industry. Because those jobs right now are paying more and have better benefits — and a lot less stress.

So principals are in a position where they're constantly, every morning shuffling the deck trying to find people to cover classrooms. And of course, if the principal is out sick, then then they're not there. And they're not really able to really assist like they normally would in that situation.

How is this staffing shortage impacting students and the school environment as a whole?

Well, it's certainly impacting it negatively. I often tell people that if you have one street worker down, the street is gonna get a little bit less clean. But if you have one classroom teacher down, unless you have somebody to cover that classroom, you get 20 first graders and nobody with them. So you have to pull people in to cover. And if I'm pulling somebody who's not a trained teacher to cover a classroom for a significant period of time, those kids are not getting instructional practices that they should be getting. Because they don't have a teacher.

Can you tell me a little bit more about those services that students are missing out on?

It's a case-by-case type of thing. But I'll give you a hypothetical. Let's say I have a student who has a special education [individualized educational plan] who's supposed to receive speech language services, for example. And I don't have a speech language teacher, because I can't find one because those jobs are so hard to fill. So then I'm looking to contract with outside agencies, and sometimes those outside agencies have all their people booked. And if I have to provide a certain level of service to a kid, and I have no human being that can provide it, I'm going to be out of compliance with the [individualized educational plan]. And so I have to keep searching for somebody, and I may have to provide compensatory services to the student during the summer.

We have one school that I know of that's had, I think it's fourth grade, but it might be third grade — has not had a teacher in the class the whole year. They've had to use different substitutes all year long because they cannot get a teacher.

I think we've had three or four principals who have left in the middle of the year — that has never happened as long as I've been in state of Vermont.
Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals' Association

We have, I think, around 1,000 openings for jobs open on July 1, for next school year. Many of those jobs are jobs that had been open for a little while. And there's just not enough applicants to go around. This has been a crisis that's been happening for the last decade or so — less and less people are going into the education field for hours teaching licensing. We used to get 100 applicants for a job, you might be getting 20 now. Where we used to get 20, you might be getting one, or two or none.

One thousand open positions?

Special education is a perfect example. There are plenty of schools that have special education advertisements out there that do not have any candidates applying for the jobs.

What can be done to help support Vermont teachers in schools? More COVID restrictions in the short term? Better pay in the long term?

There's no panacea. There's no real short answer. This year, we sponsored a bill that I actually wrote the first draft of a couple years ago. And that being House Bill 572, And it's on the governor's desk now, which would allow teachers to come out of retirement for a short term period of time, up to a year in a crisis situation where they can't find a teacher, and still draw their pension. So that's one thing that we've put forth.

We're also working with some of the career center directors to try to develop programs for high school students. We have early childhood teacher programs at some of our schools, which are just kind of a pathway to get you thinking about becoming an early childhood teacher. I'm trying to expand that to elementary licenses too. And we're also working with the Vermont Department of Labor, who's looking to try to get a grant that has to do with apprenticeship programs that would be helpful. Like the nursing field, but also in education. So we're trying to look at some big-picture solutions.

The problem is, it's a national problem, not just a state problem — at least in terms of licensed teachers. And Vermont, our pension is not as strong as the pension of any of the states around us. So that already hurts us. It makes it tough. If you have a choice between a job in New York that pays a lot more money, or New Hampshire and Maine with better pensions — that makes it a little bit tougher for younger people to choose Vermont over other states, unless they've got some tie already here. So again, there's no simple solution. It's going to be something that we have to keep working on piece by piece.

How do you imagine staffing shortages and teachers leaving the profession during the pandemic, in particular, will impact schools over the next few years?

Well, I think we're going to be negatively impacted by this. And we're going to be negatively be impacted by the loss of learning that we've had over the last two, three years, due primarily to the pandemic.

I think the key is going to be that we try to meet kids where they're at, and not think that we've got to play catch up to some imaginary standard that we all created years ago. If a kid missed a lot of instruction because of hybrid learning, or whatever the case is, we need to find out what are the most important things that student needs to know and be able to do, and then provide instruction to help backfill that so that our kids get the most important fundamental things they need to get before they graduate from high school. So that they're ready for college or a post-secondary apprenticeship program, or to go into the work field or to go to a special training certificate program. I think that's really the bottom line in terms of the impact. If we don't have highly qualified, well-trained, licensed teachers in front of our students, it's going to be very detrimental to the future of Vermont.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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