Public Schools Grapple With Looming Staffing Shortage

JohnCarl McGrady •

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The Nantucket Public Schools (NPS) district is currently looking to hire 46 faculty positions with potentially more resignations on the horizon as a severe staff shortage has left administrators scrambling to hire personnel amidst a housing crisis that makes it difficult for many employees to find a place to live.

Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Hallett, however, said that NPS is making “excellent progress,” having filled at least half of the open positions, and she is “feeling comfortable” that the school will have a solution by the Fall.

The staff shortage was already a problem this year. Teacher shortages have forced Nantucket High School (NHS) principal Mandy Vasil to teach a year-long social studies class and resulted in many classes being grouped together and herded into the NHS auditorium, where they can be watched by fewer teachers. Students described watching documentary after documentary in the auditorium, unable to complete their usual coursework and sometimes left without any assignments at all.

“I can’t get any help [while in the auditorium],” Misho Minevski, a junior working on a civics project he hopes will help address the staff shortage, said. “I take graphic design, which is a class where students need to do work on their computers in the Mac lab, and we can’t do that work at all, so we just fall behind.”

“It’s honestly just complete chaos,” junior Natalie Mack said.

High School English teacher and Nantucket Teachers’ Association Co-President Martha Page Martineau thinks the situation might get worse.

“I’m really concerned, and I know that the other teachers are as well,” she said. “I think it's distinctly possible that we could go into next year with multiple openings.”

Many teachers are retiring at the end of the year, and several others are departing for opportunities elsewhere, leaving NPS with numerous open positions. While it is standard for schools to have open positions at the end of the school year, the number of openings this year is higher than average.

It is not only teaching positions NPS is looking to fill. Usually, the district tries to employ five social workers, but this year it had only one, although the administration has been able to access some counseling through a local non-profit. Additionally, NPS is struggling with a lack of of teacher assistants, or TAs.

TAs provide learning assistance in the classroom and are critical for students with special needs and learning disabilities. Mack, who is diagnosed with dyscalculia, has relied on teaching assistants extensively throughout her academic career. “I always feel more comfortable utilizing a TA,” she said.

But TAs are paid less than teachers, making it even harder to attract people to fill those roles. According to several students, teacher assistants have also often been pulled away from their primary jobs this year, filling in as substitute teachers and watching students in the combined classes in the NHS auditorium.

In addition to the TAs who have already resigned, Martineau said she knew of several others who were considering resignation and that it’s common for school employees to wait until after the school year ends to formally announce their departure.

Hallett acknowledged the possibility that NPS could start next year with openings, particularly for positions that are more difficult to fill, like teacher assistants and special education. However, she emphasized that “[NPS is] not in panic mode” and that they are trying several new solutions to the problem.

They have widened their search for new staff and joined Homeshare Nantucket, a service that connects homeowners to year-round Nantucketers looking to rent. Additionally, if necessary, Hallett says that NPS could look at promoting TAs or increasing class sizes.

“We’re in pretty good shape, considering,” she said.

Even if the school can fill every position before September, Martineau is concerned that they might not do so with high-quality professionals.

“I’m concerned about the quality of staff we’re going to find,” she said. “It becomes a situation where you basically hire anyone who gives you a resume just to have a body in the room, and nobody wants that.”

Hallett, however, disputed that scenario, and said the district was being more selective with its hiring than Martineau suggested.

“We are not going to hire somebody just because they are warm body,” Hallett said. “There are several [applicants] we have turned down...we have said, ‘sorry, you’re not the right candidate for the job.’”

The primary reason for the NPS staff shortages is housing.

Martineau said that on several occasions the administration had found someone to fill an open position, only for them to look into the housing market and back out. “The housing situation is worse than I’ve ever seen it,” she said. “People aren’t renting at the level staff can afford.”

Housing isn’t a new problem for NPS. As far back as 1964, the New York Times wrote that the lack of adequate housing contributed to making NPS “unfit to accommodate a professionally competent teacher.” Since then, and especially in recent years, the cost of housing has skyrocketed.

According to Housing Nantucket, an affordable housing non-profit, the median price of a home on Nantucket in 2021 was $2.7 million, more than five times higher than the median price in Massachusetts over the same period, a cost that is prohibitive to 90% of year-round residents.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 5-Year American Community Survey estimates the median rent for a 2-bedroom year-round housing unit on Nantucket is $1,808 per month (and this is likely well below the actual market rate), which is also significantly higher than the state and national averages. This means that even many veteran teachers struggle to find steady housing.

To address this, Minevski thinks the school has to adjust its priorities. His research suggests that the problem will only grow, but the school has placed staff housing after constructing new athletic fields and other goals Minevski sees as less important in the comprehensive campus plan.

“The second to last phase of the campus plan is faculty housing and I think that should be changed,” he said. “I think it’s strange for the school to value athletics over [faculty housing].”

While Hallett empathized with the concern, she said that the place where NPS plans to put the teacher housing is where the athletic fields currently are, so they have to be moved before the housing can be built.

“I don’t think the school itself can do anything,” Martineau said. “I think that the community has to do something...people need to understand the dire situation that we are in and come forward and say ‘I have a cottage, I have a room,’ because that’s really what we need right now.”

Anyone who wants to rent to a teacher can call the superintendent’s office for more information.

“Consider the long-term effects on our community of not having qualified teachers and support personnel in the classroom educating our kids,” Martineau added, “because that’s what’s going to happen.”

Disclosure: Martineau, who was interviewed for this story, is the advisor of the school newspaper, Veritas, where the author of this story was the editor-in-chief for two years.

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