School committee members discussed ways to show appreciation for teachers at a meeting held in Madawaska, Maine on Jan. 11. Credit: Emily Jerkins / St. John Valley Times

MADAWASKA, Maine — A room full of teachers confronted the Madawaska School Committee last week, wanting to know why they did not get hazard pay like their colleagues in the Frenchville and Fort Kent school systems.

Madawaska School District, SAD 27 based in Fort Kent and SAD 33 based in Frenchville are all part of Valley Unified and share a superintendent.

Madawaska School Committee in the end waived the annual review of tenured teachers and gave teaching staff an extra day off in June instead of giving them hazard pay.

When the districts of Valley Unified discussed their budgets for the 2021-22 school year, Fort Kent and Frenchville included hazard pay from American Rescue Plan money for their employees. But when Madawaska discussed its budget, no one proposed hazard pay, leaving those employees the only ones within Valley Unified without compensation for prolonged exposure during the pandemic. This realization led teachers to the board to demand an explanation.

Madawaska Professional Educators Association President Bonny Tingley said that group met with Valley Unified Executive Director and Superintendent Ben Sirois and Assistant Superintendent Gisele Dionne on Jan. 10 where they proposed the ideas of giving teachers a day off and waiving the annual review of tenured teachers. 

“We arrived at this proposal because we were aware that the ESSR funds were committed for student educational purposes.” Tingley said. “We did not want to take away from those needed projects. We are very satisfied with these results and appreciate our school committee’s recognition of our additional efforts due to COVID.”

High school English teacher Teresa Madore spoke for her peers about what teachers have experienced since the start of the pandemic. From teaching in person and online at the same time to adapting curriculums to better suit the new learning environment, educators worked overtime to ensure students would receive the highest quality education, she said.

“Since 2020, everyone has been stressed out, including students.” Madore said. “Most students showed up for class on Zoom, but some never did. This caused more stress. We were worried about our students.”

The worry didn’t stop there either as educators were directly exposed to the virus and left to ask if they would take it home to susceptible family members or get sick themselves.

Many students fell behind in their studies due to the quarantines, some missing up to 20 days of school. The responsibility of getting those children back up to speed landed squarely on the shoulders of the teachers, she said.

“Too often those extra hours were stolen from family time,” Madore said.

In response to teachers’ concerns, the school committee came up with an employee appreciation day during executive session, as well as waiving annual evaluations of untenured teachers.

“At no time was there a plan to offend the employees of the Madawaska school department by either school districts providing hazard pay or that type of thing,” Valley Unified Executive Director and Superintendent Ben Sirois said. “This board did not have the chance to examine what was happening in other districts and weigh in what they could do for all of you. I do know how hard the administration works here. I know how hard the teachers work. I see it, I feel it and I live it.”

The board unanimously approved giving the teachers an extra day off in June and waiving the annual evaluations for tenured teachers. Teachers appeared satisfied with the decision.

Correction:  An earlier version of this story misstated the status of teachers who would have received an annual evaluation.