Help Wanted: School support staff

Published: Oct. 26, 2021 at 6:36 PM EDT
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ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. (WCAX) - Schools across Vermont are facing many challenges this fall, from substitute shortages to not having enough bus drivers. As part of our ongoing series on high-demand jobs, Our Kayla Martin brings us inside a local high school to see what a support staff shortage looks like and how that could have a long-term impact on students.

“We’re going to English 10 taught by Owen Sharon. I’m in the class every day supporting six students,” explained Jill Shumway, a mainstream teaching assistant at Essex High School. She says she helps the teacher manage students with individual learning plans. “I would say this year I have the most students I’ve ever had. I have 32 students on my roster that I support.”

Shumway says the number of students she supports has tripled since she first started working at the school 13 years ago. “We’re short-staffed, very short-staffed. We’re down six mainstream teaching assistants, seven one-on-ones. So, we’re all doubling up,” she said. And that has made for one of her most challenging years yet, but... “It makes the day fly by.”

She says it’s been a challenge getting students back into the swing of things after learning for much of the last year-and-a-half.

Student Support Services director Michael Woods says they had a hard time finding support staff pre-pandemic, even with the strong pool of retired teachers who served as substitutes and nurses. Now he says there’s a lot of trepidation about being in the building, especially for seniors at increased risk of COVID complications. “So, that coupled with the intense shortage, it’s kind of like the perfect storm,” he said.

And finding coverage is like playing a game of chess. “Sometimes we take staff from other programs to cover an absence that’s a higher need and we really just kind of have to play it as it goes every single day,” said Santina Leporati, an administrative assistant with Student Support Services.

Woods says the program with the highest staffing problems is ExCEL, which caters to students with special needs. “Those tend to be students with pretty intensive disabilities, some physical disabilities, some complex medical situations,” he said.

These students would usually have a one-on-one aid, but that position is only half-staffed, so the students are put into groups instead of being able to go to their regular classrooms. For safety reasons, they can’t go off alone. Not being able to build their independence is something Woods says could have long-term impacts. “That’s one of the things that keeps me up at night, to be honest,” he said.

Like most other schools, Woods says they’ve been working hard to get more staff in the door. “We’ve tried to rebrand the positions to appeal to maybe young people that want to get into nursing,” he said. “I do feel that we offer competitive wages and great benefits packages, but the hourly itself may not be able to compete with some of the other industries with all of the other jobs that are available right now.” He says the pay ranges between $17 to $22 an hour to start.

Josh Langevin is a new hire at ExCEL. He started about a month ago after working a decade for the Howard Center. He admits the job is tough. “Some days it’s just constant and you feel like you’re just not getting anywhere, you know. And then there are other days -- the next day is completely different, behaviors are great,” he said.

The job can be challenging but some of the perks are getting to play in the middle of the day with the students during a break. A big perk is time off, including winter and spring breaks, and long holiday weekends. And staff can choose whether to work year-round or take summers off.

At the end of the day, Shumway and Langevin, say it’s a very rewarding job. “That lightbulb moment and they got it,” Shumway said. “That’s what I live for.”

“Oh, super rewarding,” added Langevin.

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