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As school year rolls around, some districts still have open positions

With schools reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic, districts have posted a host of job openings — from custodians to step up cleaning of buildings and aides to monitor lunch and recess, to substitute teachers and paraprofessionals.

As the school year starts, some districts still have vacancies, with late-in-the-season hiring and competition from other districts among the challenges cited.

Waterford Superintendent Thomas Giard III said that, as of early September, the school district still needs to hire a couple of substitute custodians and three to four recess/lunchroom aides. The district also is hiring to fill three long-term teacher and about 10 paraprofessional vacancies, mostly existing positions left by staff members who have indicated they are not returning due to the pandemic.

Overall, the number of jobs for which the district is hiring is slightly higher than in previous years, though not drastically. The main difference, Giard said, is that the positions are still open late in the summer.

“Filling these positions has been a challenge,” he said. “All districts are chasing seemingly the same finite pool of potential employees.”

Most school districts in the area are reopening in a "hybrid" format, with cohorts of students attending school in person two days a week and learning remotely the other three days.

East Lyme Superintendent Jeff Newton said his district also has "found the need to hire a few additional staff to support our students working remotely." It's still looking for paraprofessionals.

Compared to previous years, he said, filling open positions this year is "a bit more challenging," as many districts are looking for extra staffing support.

Ledyard Public Schools lists 21 job openings, 19 of which have been posted since June. That's slightly more openings than usual, Superintendent Jay Hartling said, including six more paraprofessional jobs.

He said the rate of incoming applications has been flat, as it usually is this time of year. Normally, the school district tries to hire in the spring for the following fall, and it’s difficult to fill positions that open over the summer.

Hartling said having the number of open positions is stressful but current staff are able to make it work for now, given the reduction in class sizes due to the hybrid model. Due to the pandemic, the district shifted its substitute staffing structure to be building-specific, so the same people work in the same schools to reduce cross-contamination.

After hiring 55 new people last year, LEARN — an educational service center that operates schools across the region — hired 41 new staff members this summer, including certified personnel, instructional assistants, van drivers and playground monitors, Executive Director Kate Ericson said. The hiring was mainly due to resignations, as staff found new jobs in different districts or relocated, and a few were changing careers, she said. Some noncertified staff were not able to work in the hybrid model due to child care restraints.

Ericson said that LEARN was able to fill positions throughout the summer, with the exception of struggling to find certified candidates for a math opening. But as recently as the past two weeks, LEARN has had a number of resignations, and these positions are hard to fill.

“It is a challenge to fill the noncertified positions as well as find substitutes,” she said. “These are not high-paying jobs, and there is not a large pool of candidates available right now.”

The New London school district has fewer teaching positions to fill than last year but is hiring in a variety of areas where there are traditionally shortages.

“We have seen several late/unexpected resignations and/or retirements and the district continues to work with leadership to fill them and in most cases, has been successful,” said Kate McCoy, the district's executive director of strategic planning.

The district is seeking paraprofessionals, 10 part-time custodial positions to deep clean the building, and hybrid substitute teachers, McCoy said. She said the district’s partners, Kelly Services, are experiencing high demand for substitute coverage throughout the region and the pool of available candidates is limited.

The district is hiring to ensure students are safe and “have a rich and engaging academic experience,” and the district has been “mindful of keeping class sizes small, assigning teachers based on student needs, and limiting the number of interactions between students,” McCoy said.

It is not unusual at this juncture of any school year for it to be more challenging to find candidates to fill teaching positions, she said, as “Many job seekers have applied for and made decisions by this time.” She noted that the hiring challenges are not insurmountable, though "there are still opportunities for employment.”

Districts implementing strategies

Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said districts are implementing a number of strategies to address staffing needs during the pandemic, including overtime for custodians and paraprofessionals and hiring additional special education teachers and permanent substitutes assigned to individual buildings.

The state Department of Education "has issued guidance on emergency certification and flexible staffing strategies to help districts meet their staffing level needs for the fall,” department spokesman Peter Yazbak said.

Some school districts are adding substitutes and extra support staff for this year but have not had an issue filling the positions.

Groton Superintendent Michael Graner said his district had a typical season of about 20 teacher retirements in June. In addition to filling those positions, the district also sought about 20 substitutes to cover for teachers who are taking a leave of absence for the first three months. A few teachers also are providing remote lessons full time because they are unable to enter the building due to a medical condition. He said the hiring process went well and the district is at full capacity for those positions.

The district also added two new social worker positions to address students' emotional needs during the pandemic. And it is hiring about 10 part-time custodians to continuously clean the buildings, with most of those positions filled, he said.

Montville Superintendent Laurie Pallin said her district typically sees some turnover in staff, especially part-time and hourly workers, over the summer but the transition this summer has been greater than normal.

Due to the pandemic, the district had to hire more permanent substitutes, additional custodial staff for more frequent cleaning and sanitizing of school buildings during the day, certified nursing assistants and health aides to monitor medical care rooms, a safety officer at the middle school, and more monitors for bathrooms and meals, she explained.

“We have had several retirements, resignations and leave requests, and we have worked to fill those positions over the summer,” she added.

Pallin said the district has been “very pleased with the pool of applicants and (feels) that we have staffed the buildings with qualified personnel.”

The district will continue to advertise for one vacant school psychologist position, but has a plan in place to use other teachers in the short term to meet students’ needs.

North Stonington Superintendent Peter Nero said hiring was normal this year, with most of it related to teacher retirements.

As far as the impact of COVID-19, the small district has a few teachers that cannot come in due to health reasons. He said the district is focusing on hiring some per-diem substitutes and one certified elementary school teacher.

Early on this summer, the district also had two teachers with young children and found it difficult to teach from home, who requested a leave of absence, and the district hired two new teachers to cover, he said.

This July and August, Norwich Public Schools had seven retirements and 10 resignations, compared to eight retirements, including former Superintendent Abby Dolliver, and 12 resignations over the summer of 2019.

But Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow said the district is hiring additional staff this year due to COVID-19 precautions, including certified nursing assistants, paraeducator substitutes and teacher substitutes.

“We are having some success filling positions. The hard-to-fill positions from last year remain hard to fill," Stringfellow said, noting those included English as a second language, bilingual, world language, math, science, social studies, social worker, psychologist and preschool special education positions.

Lyme-Old Lyme schools are doing full in-person learning this year, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said, and received the same number of applications this year as they always do, and all positions are filled. Other than hiring five additional permanent substitutes, he said, "our hiring has not been outside the norm."

Norwich Free Academy does not have a shortage of teachers, Head of School Brian M. Kelly said, and saw the normal number of vacancies over the summer with teacher departures. 

NFA still is advertising for substitute teachers for normal needs throughout the year. Kelly said four NFA staff members are on family leave due to coronavirus concerns, and there are four long-term subs on campus now through Oct. 16.

Preston Public Schools, which runs its own school buses, started the year fully staffed with 15 drivers, “but we’re always looking to make sure we can meet all our obligations,” Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said.

The district is advertising for bus drivers, as well as for full-time substitute teachers, one for each building, to have individuals go through all the required training and report to the schools each day. Preston uses Kelly Services for substitute teachers and will continue to do that.

Preston also is looking for a replacement part-time school social worker after the previous social worker found a full-time position elsewhere. No district staff sought leave based on COVID-19 concerns, Seitsinger said.

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette, Amanda Hutchinson, Erica Moser, Greg Smith and Sten Spinella contributed to this report.

k.drelich@theday.com

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