Students fall behind and teacher morale plummets amid disruption omicron
Some of Valarie Kane’s students have had to stay out of school multiple times this school year after contracting COVID-19 or being exposed to the virus. Before a recent change in state rules, that meant they were out of school for 10 days each time.
Virtual lessons aren’t much of an option for Kane, a kindergarten teacher at Dr. Lewis Libby School in Milford, due to students‘ lack of reliable internet access and the difficulties of teaching simultaneously in person and online. . So Kane sends the students home with worksheets to complete during their quarantine, then works to catch up with them when they return.
“There are kids who haven’t missed a day of school, and they’ve been great, but trying to keep [returning] kids with what we do is very difficult,” said Kane, who teaches kindergarten at Dr. Lewis Libby School in Milford.
Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic that initially shut down schools, the rapid spread of the omicron variant means teachers like Kane are increasingly grappling with the challenges of managing high numbers of students. student absences and to keep students informed. At the same time, they are making up for the shortage of substitute teachers, as colleagues who have contracted the virus or been exposed to it must stay at home.
While students and staff are more likely to contract COVID-19 outside of school than inside, schools are far from immune to the disease. According to the Maine Department of Education, some 8,673 COVID cases were recorded among Maine school students and employees in the 30 days leading up to Thursday. This was 75% more than the workload two weeks earlier.
This created the recipe for students to fall behind and teacher morale to plummet, Kane said.
“It really takes its toll on our ability to maintain consistency for any child for a long period of time,” she said, especially since it’s already difficult to hold children’s attention from 5 years for long periods.
A critical shortage of substitutes also means that there are often few people – or no one – to cover a classroom when a teacher falls ill, which exacerbates the burnout that teachers feel.
Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, said a teacher shortage was a concern even before the pandemic, but COVID has exacerbated it. She heard from members of the teachers’ union who said they regularly work 80 hours a week, not only doing their own teaching duties but also filling in for sick colleagues.
“Our education technicians are the most affected by this,” Leavitt said. “They are being pulled from their regular assignments and having to cover a classroom, to cover this shortage.”
In the Old Town area, Regional School Unit 34 recently increased salaries in an effort to attract substitute teachers. And a local adult education program has relaunched a substitute teacher training program to try to attract contractors for three Bangor-area school districts.
In Orono, a high school teacher said more of her students were regularly getting sick with the new variant, which was disrupting their studies.
“There’s always someone who isn’t in class,” said Shana Goodall, who teaches social studies and was Maine’s History Teacher of the Year in 2019.
“In a normal year, you might just have one or two kids for a few days and then everyone is back.”
Instead, with omicron, at least one in four children are permanently absent, she said.
Orono High School has a robust technology program that lets students keep pace through remote settings like Google Classroom, making it easier to catch up when they return to school, Goodall said.
Still, it’s a challenge to keep students engaged, Goodall said.
“It’s just a revolving door,” said Tricia Clark, school principal and superintendent Dr. Lewis Libby.
Other factors — including disputes over mandatory masking and group testing — have also been a distraction for teachers, Leavitt said.
“It just seems like a lot of energy is being put into it, it could be better spent on really supporting educators so that we support our students,” Leavitt said. “It takes away from us the most important task, and that is the education of our children.”
Most school departments in the Bangor area are mandating masks in schools, but some parents’ desire to make them optional still comes up regularly at board meetings, even in the middle of the school year.
This year, schools have started the new year as close to normal as possible, allowing masked sports and in-person learning.
But now the “moving target” aspect of omicron threatens that return to near-normality, Kane said.
“It doesn’t seem to be as harmful, but it still causes a lot of disruption, so it’s frustrating, very frustrating,” she said.