In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit public school districts like the shockwave from a nuclear blast.

No one was prepared to make the drastic, immediate changes to how educators, students and their families would interact. Time-tested teaching and communication methods had to be thrown out the window overnight for safety’s sake, and a slew of new restrictions were imposed.

Because it happened in tandem with an equally dramatic shift to remote working, day care shutdowns, and widespread fear and anxiety, some educators either decided or were forced to leave their jobs. Stories of educator burnout quickly made national headlines.

In Maine School Administrative District 75 and elsewhere, most faculty and staff stayed on and figured out how to adapt to the new teaching environment. But there have been greater yearly staffing losses, both locally and nationally, that have persisted up to the present.

The continued loss of many longtime educators comes at a time when students are struggling to keep up with their studies after a period of academic turmoil and rapid change. It is also a time of heated political divisions and rising consumer costs, which education experts say have contributed to school districts’ staffing challenges.

“The loss of teachers is always a loss that directly affects students,” said Dawn San Pedro, president of the Merrymeeting Teachers Association, the union that represents educators in MSAD 75.

San Pedro said many of the ongoing discussions around school staffing are about “having to do more with less.” She said teachers are exhausted and are not always invited to the table to be part of the solution.

More teaching and support positions are likely to be lost in the near future as federal emergency relief funds related to the pandemic start to run out, San Pedro said. Educators are already stretched thin and will need more support from both administrators and parents.

“We want what is best for our students and want to work with families and communities to come together and provide the best education possible,” she said.

Teaching is only part of the job, according to San Pedro. Many students in MSAD 75 and across the country have been deeply affected by their pandemic experiences. Now, educators are having to rebuild trust while helping students manage emotional and behavioral problems.

“One thing we have learned over the last few years is that relationships with students need to be developed first, before we can access academic needs,” San Pedro said.

Digging into the data

Annual staff and faculty departures from MSAD 75 schools have declined gradually since spiking in the pandemic year of 2020-21 but remain elevated, according to a Harpswell Anchor review of announced resignations and retirements over the past five years. The district covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.

Resignations and retirements from the roughly 500-employee district nearly doubled from 33 during the 2019-20 school year to 62 in 2020-21.

Through the end of the 2022-23 school year, the number of annual departures has remained higher than normal. It was 50 in 2021-22, and 47 this past academic year. In pre-pandemic 2018-19, there were only 26 staff and faculty departures from the district.

The pandemic’s biggest impact on MSAD 75 staffing can be seen in the data for staff and faculty resignations. The annual number of retirements has fluctuated, but within a fairly stable range of 10 to 20 per year. Not so for resignations, which shot up from 14 in 2018-19 to 43 in 2020-21.

Districtwide resignations have since fallen gradually, to 39 in 2021-22 and 33 in the most recent academic year, which ended June 30.

Since the 2020-21 school year, there has been a greater drop-off among staff resignations, while faculty resignations within MSAD 75 actually hit a five-year peak of 14 during the recently ended 2022-23 school year. For comparison, only two faculty members resigned in 2018-19.

Maine doesn’t track annual staff and faculty departures across its roughly 120 public school districts, but myriad state and national data support the notion that educator burnout has been a serious issue during the pandemic.

For example, a report issued in August 2022 by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University found there were at least 36,000 vacant teacher positions and 163,000 positions being held by underqualified teachers, “both of which are conservative estimates of the extent of teacher shortages nationally.”

There has been a clear national trend of educators leaving the profession since 2020, said MSAD 75 interim Superintendent Heidi O’Leary, who led the district’s special education programs during the height of the pandemic.

“One year, I think over 200,000 teachers across the country resigned,” she said. “That’s huge.”

Low pay an issue

O’Leary, who began serving as interim superintendent on July 1, said district operations have mostly returned to normal in the three years since the pandemic’s onset.

The administration has managed to replace most of its lost faculty and staff, she said, although MSAD 75 was still down about five paraprofessionals, also known as educational technicians or teaching assistants, as of mid-July. Those positions, which pay a starting salary of $25,000 to $30,000 a year, have been the most difficult to fill, O’Leary said.

In general, Maine’s relatively low wages have made it harder for school districts across the state to remain fully staffed, said Penny Bishop, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine at Orono.

Challenges created by remote learning, political polarization within school districts and a general feeling that teachers are undervalued also have contributed to the spate of early retirements and resignations, Bishop said.

Still, she said boosting salaries for Maine educators would go a long way toward solving the state’s school staffing problems.

“I wouldn’t write off paying people more, because it matters a lot,” Bishop said.

In May, the Maine Legislature approved a measure to increase the minimum teacher’s salary to $50,000 by academic year 2027-28, but it received no funding in the next state budget and is therefore on hold, according to news reports.

Maine’s current minimum starting salary for teachers is $40,000. According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Education Association, Maine’s average starting teacher pay is the lowest in New England and 13th-lowest in the nation, although it cites an estimated figure of $39,101 — slightly below the state-mandated minimum.

In June, the Maine Senate Democrats released a statement emphasizing the need to increase educators’ pay in the state.

“According to a report released in March by the consulting firm McKinsey, one-third of American K-12 educators are contemplating leaving their jobs, citing compensation as the top reason,” the statement reads.

Bishop said another financial challenge in Maine is that teachers pay into a designated pension system in lieu of making contributions to Social Security. About 15 U.S. states participate in so-called “windfall elimination” programs, including Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts in New England.

That system worked well in the past when most people kept the same teaching job for decades, Bishop said, but it can leave retiring former educators at a financial disadvantage in the modern era of high career mobility.

“Because they haven’t paid into Social Security for years, they end up disproportionately negatively affected from an income standpoint,” she said. “Because we compete regionally with other New England states, teachers often won’t choose Maine because of this.”

San Pedro, the MSAD 75 teachers union leader, said educators need more support for their physical and emotional health in addition to better pay.

“We have a national teacher shortage,” she said. “Let’s see free wellness opportunities put in place for staff. Let’s see pay increases and new ideas to keep teachers in place.”

Impact on students

The pandemic has created unprecedented learning and mental health challenges for students, Bishop said, which in some ways have contributed to educator burnout.

And while today’s classrooms may look similar to those prior to the pandemic, she said, there are lingering problems underneath the surface.

“Conditions haven’t improved,” Bishop said. “It may be that we’re back face to face, but in fact you’re now teaching students who are demonstrating behavioral and mental health issues that are sort of unprecedented. Social and emotional skills are reduced.”

Families have been struggling for a variety of reasons, she said, and many students have missed a significant amount of learning time and have fallen behind as a result.

“I’ve heard a lot of stories from educators … that just demonstrate that schools are a really challenging place right now,” she said. “Teaching has always been challenging work, but it’s especially so now.”

Kaitlin Young, a former music educator for Regional School Unit 68 in Dover-Foxcroft, said the unprecedented conditions created by the pandemic have made it necessary to provide additional support for teachers in the form of new skills training, among other things.

“As the needs of our students change, our need for that professional learning to help us meet their needs continues to change,” said Young, who left teaching in 2022 to become policy and program manager for the education advocacy nonprofit Educate Maine.

Jason Judd, Educate Maine’s executive director, said the problems facing teachers and their students also have potential economic implications for Maine.

Judd said businesses in the state are concerned that increased educator turnover within Maine school districts will negatively affect student academic performance, which could lead to workforce readiness problems and worker shortages down the road.

“Student preparedness in our schools directly connects to the preparedness of our workforce,” he said. “We know that high-quality teaching and teachers have a significant impact on students’ success.”

Dolly Sullivan, program director for Educate Maine’s Teacher of the Year program, decried what she described as politically motivated efforts to undermine public education at a time when Maine teachers and students are facing unprecedented challenges.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that people understand that this is important to our economic prosperity in Maine,” Sullivan said. “Public schools are important, and we have to make sure that we don’t allow this divisiveness to take hold.”

O’Leary, the interim MSAD 75 superintendent, said the district has a lot of hard work ahead of it to continue serving its growing and culturally diversifying student body.

She pointed out that the vast majority of MSAD 75 educators haven’t left — they continue to work hard every day to support their students and help them succeed.

“I like to keep things positive, because it’s always easy to find the one thing that’s a negative,” O’Leary said. “Sure, there are areas that we have to fix, but we recognize that and we want to move forward and fix anything that we need to.”

Have a comment or news tip? Email J. Craig Anderson at