Rycc Smith welcomes Montello Elementary School students as they board his bus outside the Lewiston, Maine school after the first day back in nearly a month on Jan. 21, 2021. Credit: Russ Dillingham / Sun Journal via AP

A Penobscot County adult education program has resurrected its training program for substitute teachers as school districts in the Bangor area and across Maine face a shortage that’s making it difficult to ensure every classroom is covered.

The Riverside Adult Education Partnership — which serves Old Town-based RSU 34, RSU 26 in Orono and RSU 22 in the Hampden area — relaunched the substitute training program for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down. It’s now offered remotely.

So far, three people have gone through the program, which trains participants on managing a classroom and accommodating students with special education needs. It also provides them with information about substituting in the three participating districts.

Rebecca Cross, the partnership’s director, initially thought it would be too complicated to run the training program given COVID-19 restrictions. But superintendents facing a substitute shortage demanded it, she said.

“I said to the three superintendents, ‘I guess I won’t run this class because I’m presuming it’s too difficult with COVID restrictions,’” Cross said. “And they said, ‘please do it. What are you talking about? No, you’ve got to find a way.’”

The digital format allows participants to access all the files they need to review, then participate in Zoom meetings where they can hear from different speakers. Cross said it’s working well.

“I’m floored because they loved it,” she said of the first participants. “And actually, I just got an email from a community member in Hampden, who said it was the best overview to substitute teaching he’s had, and I was so heartened.” 

People don’t need a permit or certification to become a substitute teacher, but some districts require training.

The shortage of substitute teachers isn’t new in Maine, but it’s been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools — and employers throughout much of the economy — have struggled to fill a variety of openings. 

In Orono’s RSU 26, the food services director spent the first several weeks of the school year as the only person working in the Orono Middle-High School kitchen preparing meals for more than 500 students after the full-time kitchen crew didn’t return to work this school year.

The school district is also having trouble maintaining a sufficient roster of substitute teachers, said Superintendent Meredith Higgins. 

“This shortage makes it difficult to have adequate coverage for many days,” she said. 

RSU 34 is trying to make it more appealing to prospective substitutes, especially those who want to continue in the education field. The district is offering increased on-the-job training, more competitive pay and tuition reimbursement.

The district “is in desperate need of qualified personnel for on-call positions as substitute staff as well as school year employment opportunities for Educational Technicians,” Superintendent David Walker said. “We would welcome inquiries about opportunities within RSU 34.” 

After initial success with the first substitute teacher training program, Cross said the adult education program is putting together a follow-up class called “A Substitute Teacher’s Bag of Tricks.”

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Sawyer Loftus

Sawyer Loftus is a reporter covering Old Town, Orono and the surrounding areas. A recent graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he's worked for Vermont Public Radio, The...