Vermont Principals’ Association leader on current COVID outbreak: ‘People are exhausted’

Vermont has seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 in recent weeks, in part due to the “stealth” omicron BA.2 subvariant.

But, it’s hard to get a full view of the impact on school districts because state health officials stopped tracking student infections in January.

To get a sense of how schools are weathering rising cases, Grace Benninghoff of VPR 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 coming to an end. Are we seeing an increase in COVID cases in the districts as we are in the communities in general?

Jay Nichols: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say we are. Principals’ reports indicate that they recently have more children and staff with COVID. On Monday, I had three principals who were out with COVID – one of whom actually attended a meeting with me and supported his school every day online. I’m not sure about the other two because I heard that from a superintendent.

Looking at the bigger picture, can you tell me a bit about the staffing issues many districts are facing, and how these might be exacerbated during the current COVID surge?

It’s been a problem since we returned to school this fall. It’s even bigger now than it was. The pandemic has exacerbated what has always been kind of a predicament and a crisis situation in some parts of the state and in some positions.

So people are exhausted; they took care of it all year. And so for a lot of them, they’ve hit a saturation point. I think we’ve had three or four directors leave in the middle of the year — that’s never happened since I’ve been in the 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 a lot of support staff who just said, “Friday is my last day, I’m going to go do something else.” And often they’re the glue that holds the school together — people who can oversee recess, or the cafeteria, or step into the subs when there aren’t substitutes available. Many of these positions are vacant this year. Many people accept jobs outside the public school sector, mainly in the service sector. Because these jobs currently pay more and offer better benefits – and a lot less stress.

So the principals are in a position where they are constantly, every morning, shuffling the cards trying to find people to cover the classrooms. And of course, if the principal is sick, then he’s not there. And they’re not really able to really help like they normally would in this situation.

How does this staffing shortage affect students and the school environment as a whole?

Well, it definitely has a negative impact. I often tell people that if you have a street worker, the street will get a little less clean. But if you have a teacher down, unless you have someone to cover for that class, you get 20 first-graders and no one with them. So you have to attract people to cover you. And if I fire someone who isn’t a qualified teacher to cover a classroom for a significant period of time, those kids don’t get the teaching practices they should have. Because they don’t have a teacher.

Can you tell me a little more about the services that students lack?

It’s kind of a case-by-case thing. But I’ll give you a guess. Let’s say I have a student who has special education [individualized educational plan] who is supposed to receive speech therapy services, for example. And I don’t have a speech therapy teacher, because I can’t find one because these jobs are so hard to fill. So I’m looking to contract with outside agencies, and sometimes those outside agencies have all their staff booked. And if I have to provide a certain level of service to a child, and I have no human being capable of providing it, I will not respect the [individualized educational plan]. And so I have to keep looking for someone, and maybe I have to provide compensatory services to the student over the summer.

We have a school that I know of that had, I think it’s fourth year, but could be third year – had no teacher in the class all year. They had to use different substitutes throughout the year because they couldn’t find a teacher.

I think we’ve had three or four directors leave in the middle of the year — that’s never happened since I’ve been in the state of Vermont.

Jay Nichols, Vermont Principals’ Association

We have, I think, about 1,000 open jobs on July 1, for the next school year. Many of these jobs are jobs that have been open for a while. And there just aren’t enough applicants for everyone. It’s a crisis that’s been going on for a decade – fewer and fewer people are getting into education for hours of teaching. We used to have 100 applicants for a job, you could have 20 now. Where we used to have 20, you could have one, or two, or none.

A thousand open positions?

Special education is a perfect example. There are many schools that have special education ads out there that have no candidates applying for the jobs.

What can be done to help support Vermont teachers in schools? More short-term COVID restrictions? Pay better in the long run?

There is no panacea. There really isn’t a short answer. This year we sponsored a bill that I first drafted a few years ago. And that’s House Bill 572, and it’s now on the governor’s desk, that would allow teachers to come out of retirement for a short time, up to a year in a crisis situation where they can’t find help. teacher, and still receive their pension. So that’s something we’ve put forward.

We are also working with some of the career center directors to try to develop programs for high school students. We have early childhood education programs in some of our schools, which are just kind of a pathway for you to become an early childhood teacher. I am also trying to extend this to elementary licenses. And we’re also working with the Vermont Department of Labor, which is looking for a grant related to apprenticeship programs that would be helpful. Like the nursing field, but also in education. We therefore try to find global solutions.

The problem is that this is a national problem, not just a state problem, at least in terms of licensed teachers. And in Vermont, our pension is not as strong as any of the states around us. So it’s already hurting us. It makes things difficult. If you have the choice between a job in New York which pays a lot more money, or New Hampshire and Maine with better pensions – it makes it a little harder for young people to choose Vermont over other states , unless they already have a tie here. So again, there is no simple solution. It will be something that we will have to continue to work on little by little.

How do you imagine that 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 that. And we’re going to be negatively impacted by the learning loss that we’ve had over the last two, three years, mainly because of the pandemic.

I think the key is going to be that we try to meet the kids where they are, and don’t think we have to catch up to some imaginary level that we all created years ago. If a child has missed a lot of instruction due to blended learning, or whatever the case may be, we need to find out what are the most important things the student needs to know and be able to do, and then provide instruction to help bridge that so our kids get the most important foundational things they need before they graduate from high school. So that they are ready for college or a post-secondary apprenticeship program, or to enter the field of work, or to complete a special training certificate program. I think that’s really the bottom line in terms of 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.

Do you have questions, comments or advice? Send us a message or contact Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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