Just after Thanksgiving, Falmouth High School Principal Mary Gans got a call: the school had a positive case. Twelve of her staff members were considered “close contacts” and had to quarantine immediately.
"I just [did] not have the ability to cover all of their classes, even for the rest of the day," Gans said. "There just weren’t the bodies that we could pull to satisfy that kind of puzzle."
Substitute teachers are very hard to come by this year, so the school decided to go fully remote for a week. The hybrid model is back up and running at Falmouth High School, but Gans said having enough teachers is an ongoing challenge.
"We’ve been so short that I’ll go and sub in classes when teachers are out," she said. "And I’ve done that in the past, but not like this year."
And she isn’t the only administrator pitching in to cover classes.
"What I'm hearing a lot is that [districts] are using principals, assistant principals, superintendents and assistant superintendent to fill those gaps as much as possible," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. This staffing strain is an issue across the state, which Scott said is likely to get worse as the year goes on. Staff absences are typically higher in the winter months.
And this year, Scott explained some teachers decided to take a leave of absence or retire because of COVID-19 health concerns. The state doesn’t track how many teachers took a leave of absence, but retirement applications filed in June, July and August -- as the school year approached — were about 25% higher than those filed during the same period last year.
"Where you saw the absence of those teachers, that's where we started to look for how do we tap into teaching assistants, paraprofessionals and others who can sort of fill some of the teaching opportunities that were there," Scott said.
In Cambridge, the hybrid model the district developed also required more teaching positions. It called for one teacher and two para professionals for each in-person class.
To make that work, the school system's human resources department had to fill a lot of positions before school started.
"To have to hire 128 people in September is unprecedented and it was difficult," Cambridge Public Schools' human resources director Lisa Richardson said.
To meet that goal, the district expanded the criteria for who could work in a classroom.
"Now, if you have a bachelor's degree in something that is relatable, we're interested," explained Richardson.
Cambridge is one of many districts that had to hire a lot of staff this fall. The state approved an emergency teaching license over the summer that's helped some school systems fill their vacancies. The state has issued about 5,600 so far. For non-specialist teachers, there are two minimum qualifications: a bachelor's degree and “sound moral character.” Applicants don’t have to pass the MTEL, state teaching certification test.
For that reason, Merrie Najimy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, believes these licenses must be temporary.
"We can’t accept these as permanent changes," said Najimy. "Because what ends up happening is our most needy students get the least qualified adults."
The union did play a big role in creating the emergency teaching license, but Najimy added, the people with this certification have to be seen as more than just staff who can safely monitor students.
"They shouldn’t be thrown into the hardest districts and the hardest circumstances without district support," she said. "And the obligation of supporting the district comes from the state."
For a lot of schools, dealing with this teacher shortage also means a lot of stretching. Mashpee Public Schools on Cape Cod is looking for bigger spaces to put students when teachers are out.
Superintendent Patricia DeBoer said her schools are trying to turn the gym and cafeteria into remote learning spaces. The larger rooms can accommodate more students while still following the COVID-19 distancing guidelines.
"You can supervise their online activity with less staffing and not expose anybody to any risk," explained DeBoer.
Before school started, DeBoer and other Cape Cod superintendents had also explored sharing teachers between districts. But that was too complicated to pull off quickly. Still, she thinks it could help schools all over the cape offer a wider variety of specialty classes in the future, like her district’s Native American language class.
She said, in a way, that’s one silver lining that might come out of this situation.
This segment aired on December 21, 2020.