The Dexter Regional High School Credit: Stuart Hedstrom / BDN

Sharon Littlefield stepped in as a custodian last week, opening milk cartons and peeling plastic from cheese sticks for pre-K and kindergarten students at Manson Park School in Pittsfield.

It was different from her typical duties as the superintendent of SAD 53.

Although spending time with the district’s youngest students was a mood-booster, school administrators like Littlefield are finding themselves filling gaps in various positions districtwide, a result of the substitute shortage affecting schools across Maine and the country.

“Everybody’s dealing with the stress that COVID has brought to this world right now,” Littlefield said Friday afternoon. “You’ve just got to find a situation and figure out how to make the most of it.”

While the lack of substitutes isn’t new, it has forced school administrators statewide to scramble almost daily to cover classrooms during a school year that has already proven difficult for educators, students and families due to COVID-19. School officials across Penobscot and Somerset counties fear the substitute shortage shows few signs of improvement and could force some buildings to close and schools to temporarily transition to remote learning.

In past years, SAD 53 had a lengthy list of substitutes, but people no longer seem to be signing up, which is troubling, Littlefield said.

The district increased its daily pay rate last year from about $80 to $85, Littlefield said. SAD 53 recently advertised to hire permanent substitutes for pre-K through fourth grade and fifth through eighth grades, guaranteeing them four days a week, but it only received a handful of applications.

Sharon Littlefield, superintendent of School Administrative District 53. Credit: Courtesy of Sharon Littlefield

“I don’t know if it’s COVID-related or wage-related,” Littefield said, adding the district has posted on ServingSchools.com, Indeed.com and in a local paper. “I’m not sure.”

The number of teacher candidates has also dwindled during the pandemic. SAD 53 used to receive 20 to 30 applications when a new job posting went up, but now the district might get five, Littlefield said. Being an educator is a demanding career, especially during a pandemic, she said.

At RSU 19, which is located in Newport, some buildings have had from 11 to 16 staff members out for a variety of reasons, Superintendent Michael Hammer said. On Sept. 8, Sebasticook Valley Elementary canceled classes due to a staffing shortage, according to the district’s Facebook page.

“In the morning, when you get those calls that there aren’t enough people, it’s really hard on administrators,” he said. “They do whatever they can to keep the doors open.”

Sometimes principals and assistant principals have had to cover classrooms. Employees understand that the goal is to keep as many students learning in person as possible, Hammer said.

The district is seeking substitutes in all areas, including bus drivers, custodians, food service workers and classroom substitutes. Along with job postings on ServingSchools.org, the district is trying to reach potential applicants on Facebook.

Although federal funds allocated to schools during the pandemic were a huge help in some ways, new hires for positions like educational technicians “dried up the pool of people we had available on our sub lists,” said Steve Bell, Dexter Regional High School principal.

Steve Bell, principal at Dexter Regional High School. Credit: Courtesy of Steve Bell

Some available substitutes don’t feel comfortable taking on high school-level content and indicate that they only want to work with younger students, so Bell is often left with one or two substitutes he can call on weekday mornings.

“I’ve had multiple days this year where I’ve got five, six teachers out because of quarantine or COVID issues or medical issues, and next thing you know, I’ve got to close down libraries, the makerspace, move other people around, close programs so I can cover classrooms,” Bell said. “So it’s a struggle.”

Dexter Regional High School has been lucky to have had several retired teachers return full time because they recognized how important it was to keep schools open, Bell said.

“Thank God those people chose to come back, or we’d be in a much more desperate situation than we are,” he said.

During a board meeting at SAD 46 last week, Bell made a public plea for substitutes. SAD 46 serves the towns of Dexter, Exeter, Ripley and Garland.

Bell encouraged college students home during break to apply, along with stay-at-home parents whose kids are at school during the day.

It’s just one strategy the district relies on to spread the word. During Bell’s tenure, the salary for substitutes was raised several times to stay competitive in the area and the district has held information sessions to try to get more people to become certified substitutes, he said.

Although area school districts have varying qualifications to become a substitute teacher, many require only a high school diploma and copies of transcripts, along with a background check and fingerprinting. Some are offering incentives to attract more applicants, such as SAD 53 — which covers fingerprinting costs — and Hilltop School in Bangor which is offering temporary bonuses.

Masking policies, vaccinations and pooled testing have helped keep more students and staff in classrooms this year, but schools are still hurting, officials said.

“It definitely has been a dwindling pool…You hope the least impact is on the students,” Bell said.