Nome-Beltz staffing shortage reaches ‘crisis point’
By Megan Gannon
At Nome-Beltz Middle and High School, teachers report low morale and worries for students’ wellbeing as they struggle to cover for critical staff vacancies. The understaffing crisis was the focus of conversation at this month’s regular school board meeting, held on Tuesday, Oct. 11.
“Our staffing situation has kind of reached a crisis point,” said Superintendent Jamie Burgess. “I think it’s important for our community to be aware that it is going to start impacting the education of their children and potential school closures are going to have an impact on families as well.”
The board heard from three Beltz teachers who described the severity of the situation.
Jennifer Shreve, who made a public comment as president of the Nome Education Association, representing the district’s teachers, said many of the educators she spoke with felt they had “nothing left to give.”
“The increase of the cost of living has become a concern, causing individuals to tighten their budgets and evaluate if they can afford to remain in Nome,” Shreve said. “Teachers leaving the profession after all that was placed on them over the past couple of years is not news to us. However, the continued additional stress from students’ disrespect, negative attitudes towards staff, other students and themselves may increase the departure rate, not to mention the additional daily duties that teachers have placed upon them due to staff shortages impacting our time to prepare for instruction.”
Shreve described situations where teachers were “in triage mode” at Nome-Beltz because there was no one in the main office to assist with behavior issues in the classroom.
In her letter, Nome-Beltz special educator teacher Jill Peters said she was left on her own for ten minutes to break-up a volatile interaction between two students. Peters said the incident “ultimately ended with law enforcement coming out to the school because our counselors were so busy filling in as a substitute teacher for two people, because several other staff members were out, because the front office was overwhelmed with work and the principal was dealing with multiple other issues.”
Peters said only seven of her 17 students showed up for her jobs class the next day, and she wondered if many were absent because of what they were exposed to the day before. “Once again, instead of helping students craft their resume, I spent the class time asking them if they had questions about what happened yesterday, or if they needed to process what happened,” Peters said. “The seven students talked about how angry the incident made them, how scared it made them and reminded them of other traumas that they’ve had to deal with.”
Nome-Beltz Middle School social studies teacher Ryan Fox said he is currently educating 120 students and has no regular support from a paraprofessional in his classes. The lack of adults on campus, he said, is also contributing to the high number of kids skipping classes this year.
Nome-Beltz Principal Teriscovkya Smith said she is still performing the duties of an assistant principal, her former job, which remains vacant. “Last year, and the year before I did it with glee,” Smith said. “I woke up before my alarm, I enjoyed interactions with students about choices and consequences and growing them, and I worked tirelessly so that the principal of the building could do his job. I’m still in that role. I have not been a principal at Beltz.”
Smith said the staffing strain has compromised her capacity to keep the building safe, coach and mentor teachers and perform community outreach to recruit sorely needed substitute teachers.
“I’m good in typical crises, but it’s a checkmate,” she told the board. “It’s a series of checkmates right now. We’ve had one day in this building at Beltz where we’ve had all of our staff present minus the vacancies, so our absenteeism is on the rise. [We have] mostly zero subs—not some subs, zero subs—and three, four, five or six teachers out on some days. I don’t need to explain what that might look like when we’re pulling people and we’re combining classes, and then that wears teachers out, so you create this cycle. They’re exhausted, they need downtime, they deserve it.”
Smith worried that the crisis didn’t just put the district at risk of losing teachers, but students, too. She said she was late to the board meeting because she has a parent who is unenrolling his child “because we’re not able to provide the support that his son needs to be successful.”
“I can’t do anything but agree with him,” Smith said. “And that’s not who I am as an educator.”
Nome Elementary School is not facing problems as severe as the Nome-Beltz campus. More community members are generally willing to work as substitute teachers for younger children, said Principal Elizabeth Korenek-Johnson. Still, the school doesn’t have enough subs, and staff shortages often mean lost learning opportunities for NES students.
“We’d like to keep the integrity of Title I and cultural studies and PE and STEM and mindfulness and all of those things,” Korenek-Johnson said. “But all of those people get pulled if we have a classroom without a teacher.”
Lisa Leeper, principal of the Anvil City Science Academy added that she thought plans to address the problem “need to be made very, very quickly.”
“I feel the pulse of the teachers, I feel the pulse of the schools, and I worry,” she said.
Several board members and administrators noted that the work of solving the staffing crisis would take some creativity and would have to involve the wider community. They discussed the possibility of holding a town hall meeting where more parents and community members could be involved in the discussion. They also discussed coordinating a bigger push to recruit subs. The district pays $155 per day for applicants without a college degree from an accredited university, and $260 per day for applicants with a college degree from an accredited university.
Board member Darlene Trigg wanted to make sure that in addressing the understaffing problems, the district did not lose sight of its goal to create a trauma-informed school system that serves its students.
“You can pull up my school records and very clearly see that I was a child who got into a fight in the middle of the counselor’s office, had to go home for out-of-school suspension for days, had a child my sophomore year of high school,” Trigg said. “Had it not been for teachers and adults caring for me in those moments of crisis, I don’t know that I would be sitting here in the position that I’m in, trying to make sure that we’re a district that cares for a child that was like me at that age. Please, please don’t hear my comments as disrespect to teachers or to the crisis that’s there. It’s about trying to make sure we don’t lose sight of that.”
Smith did include a positive shoutout in her report that highlighted what a difference one support-staff hire could make. Celeste Mandley, the middle school’s new chef, has “completely transformed our cafeteria,” Smith said. “These meals aren’t just meals. They are unlike what you see in your typical school. There’s salads and wraps and homemade pasta sauce with meatballs and garlic toast. More kids are sitting in the cafeteria to talk and eat. Their phones are down. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in quite a while.”
The board also welcomed its newest member, Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone. This was her first meeting since winning the municipal election for an uncontested open seat vacated by Dr. Barb Amarok, who decided not to run for re-election.
Just two action items were tackled during the meeting. The board approved a litany of policy changes that were first presented during the September meeting. The board also approved Burgess’ request to nominate the board for recognition as School Board of the Year to the Alaska Association of School Boards. Burgess said she felt the board’s work on the district’s strategic equity framework and its conduct during the COVID-19 pandemic was worthy of recognition.