Like a ‘dystopian novel’: violence, apathy on the rise in schools as pandemic wanes

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Nashua teacher Walt Freeman stepped up to the mic speaks at Nashua’s Board of Education Meeting in December. (Screenshot)

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In December, Nashua teacher Walt Freeman stepped up to the mic to speak to the city’s Board of Education [view video clip below] 

“If I were to write a futuristic dystopian novel, it would begin with a deadly pandemic as a backdrop. The schools in my dystopian novel would be infested with violence and apathy,” said Freeman, an English teacher at Nashua High School North. “Hundreds of teacherless students a day would be herded like cattle into viral holding pens to wait out the day, because there was no one available to come in and teach them.”

He described fights and acts of vandalism and “bounties” placed on teachers while educators are asked to “just keep swimming” through it all.

“Sadly, I don’t have to write this novel,” Freeman added. “All of us are living this novel daily — a bizarre and shameful reality.”

It’s a story several school districts around the state seem to be experiencing, including Keene. This week, the Board of Education directed administrators to use all tools available — including expulsions and suspensions — to correct ongoing safety and behavioral issues at the high school, according to The Keene Sentinel.

Behavioral issues — including fighting, vandalism and vaping — have plagued the school all year. A fight last Friday led to a protest Monday attended by dozens of high school students and several parents, according to the paper. Several students have been suspended. 

“The bottom line is the kids deserve to be in a safe environment, so do our staff,” SAU 29 Superintendent Robert Malay said, according to the Sentinel. “The tools that this board has given us have been implemented.”

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Keene Board of Education discusses issues regarding behavior at Keene High School, as well as discrimination, during a recent board meeting in Keene.
Photo/Hannah Schroeder, Sentinel Staff

A shortage of teachers 

Freeman told the story about the dystopian novel to illustrate some of the challenges teachers face, while working without a contract. The Nashua Teachers Union and the school board’s negotiating team were at a standstill for several months before the two sides came to a tentative agreement in early March. 

The union believes the drawn-out negotiations took a toll on teacher morale. But even with a contract, Nashua educators and parents say the schools continue to grapple with the effects of a pandemic that disrupted classrooms nationwide, exacerbating long-standing issues in education. 

“You add on the other layers of COVID-19 and the impacts those have had, the different legislation at the state house that’s negatively impacting education, and public education more specifically,” Nashua Teachers Union President Adam Marcoux said in February. “People have reached an endpoint where they’re not leaving Nashua to go teach somewhere else. They’re leaving education altogether.” 

Diana Greer is one of those educators. In mid-February, she resigned from her position as an eighth-grade science teacher at Pennichuck Middle School, where she’d been working for two and a half years. The school’s other eighth-grade science teacher also left a few weeks before Greer’s resignation, she said. 

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Diana Greer, speaking at December’s Nashua Board of Education meeting, resigned in mid-February from her position as an eighth-grade science teacher at Pennichuck Middle School, where she’d been working for two and a half years. The school’s other eighth-grade science teacher also left a few weeks before Greer’s resignation, she said. Screenshot

Overwhelmed by growing behavioral concerns in the classroom and the weight of the pandemic on her own mental health, Greer started looking for a new position around the end of November. 

“I would often go speak at the Board of Ed meetings, telling them how awful it is and that I was looking for work elsewhere. And I’m young enough that I could still go find work elsewhere; I have a general science degree,” said Greer, who taught for about seven years. “But you know, other people are just waiting out their couple years of retirement, or really don’t have a choice but to teach.”

According to the district, 41 Nashua teachers plan to retire at the end of this school year. That’s the largest number of retirements over the past five years, with 27 retirements in fiscal year 2021, 25 in fiscal year 2020, 26 in fiscal year 2019 and 39 in fiscal year 2018. 

The state also faces critical staffing shortages across a range of disciplines that predate the pandemic, including for teachers in special education, English language learning (ELL), math, science and social studies. As of March 10, the Nashua School District’s jobs board listed more than 400 vacancies, with more than 150 of those openings classified as student support services.

“As you know, staffing shortages are a concern not only for us but also a concern across all school districts and schools across the region,” Nashua Communications Director Stacy Hynes said in an email. “I don’t believe it is because of the pandemic … staff retire for a lot of reasons. I am sure you have seen data that indicates lower enrollments in college educator degree programs.”

But the pandemic has certainly complicated things. In early 2022, when COVID-19 cases spiked, the district shut its schools down for two days due to inadequate staffing. And with substitutes also in short supply, there hasn’t always been someone available to cover classes when school is in session. 

At his high school, Freeman said the solution has typically been to have students spend those class periods in the auditorium.  

“They’d come down the hallway, and they’d spot the sign on the door and their shoulders would sag. And sometimes they just go, ‘Again?’ or they’d look at us where we’re standing in front of our classrooms,” Freeman said. ” … And we’d shake our heads and say, ‘I know — there’s nothing we can do.’ And they would trudge back to the auditorium.”

The district did not respond to an emailed list of questions about Nashua’s staffing needs, its procedure for covering classes when a substitute is not available or the impact of shortages on students’ school day. 

‘It felt like we went through war together’ 

It was frustrating for Jamie Cutrona, whose son is in eighth grade at Fairgrounds Middle School, to see teachers fighting for a contract after putting in so much work throughout the pandemic. She feels the district and school board could have done more to support its staff during the crisis.

“I feel like they’re still doing their jobs in their classrooms to the best of their ability. I don’t feel like that has dropped off,” Cutrona said. “The teachers are still doing what they have to do, and I’m very grateful for that.” 

Similarly, parent Colleen Jamieson felt there was a lot of confusion and disorganization when it came to administration last school year, especially as the district was preparing for a leadership transition. But she has been happy with the efforts of teachers and school staff throughout the crisis. Jamieson has two sons attending Main Dunstable Elementary School, with one in kindergarten and one in second grade.

“My son’s teacher last year, she was really — I mean, it felt like we went through war together,” Jamieson said.

But that doesn’t mean Jamieson’s kids have been untouched by the disruption to schools. She recently shared a sad moment with her older son, who told her he no longer likes group hugs because he learned at school that touching and hugging are not allowed. Though Jamieson understands why rules like these are necessary, it was a sobering moment to realize how much her son missed out on during his first few years of school.

That’s why she’d like to see the district focus on “the mental health aspect of everything. It’s not that they don’t have support — the guidance counselor has been fantastic over at Main Dunstable,” Jamieson said. “But I think just in general, I think that that’s kind of lacking for a lot of kids.”

Struggling to address mental health, behavior

Freeman noted that students have had to let go of many of the social experiences associated with school over the past two years, from field trips to clubs and committees to drama productions. For teachers, the impact of those missed experiences is plain to see.  

“Trudging through a couple of years of that for them has just been sort of an endless nightmare. Your heart breaks for them,” he said. “And I’ve gotta tell you, the courage and the resilience is there. But, so is the depression, and the anxiety, and the sadness.”

Greer said her decision to leave teaching was partly spurred by a rise in behavioral concerns, noting that she was spending more time than ever before breaking up fights. When substitutes were unavailable to cover absences, she said paraprofessionals, who typically assist instructors and work directly with students with disabilities, were sometimes pulled from classrooms to fill in as teachers. This made student behavior more difficult for Greer to manage, and she felt there wasn’t a clear direction from district leadership to help teachers navigate these situations. 

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Nashua Board of Education President Jennifer Bishop.

According to President Jennifer Bishop, the Board of Education has received emails from the community about paraprofessionals being pulled from classrooms. She said the district recently contracted with a staffing agency to help recruit substitute teachers, and with COVID-19 cases now on a downward trend and mask mandates being lifted, her hope is that such measures soon won’t be necessary.

Bishop also recognizes that the mental health and behavioral challenges schools are facing could discourage potential candidates from applying for open positions.

“Who wants to hear that in the news and then say, you know, ‘Sign me up, I want to go work in a classroom’?” Bishop said. “I sometimes feel like we’re kind of in a no-win situation.”

One of Freeman’s biggest concerns is that there aren’t many educators “waiting in the wings” to fill these positions. And Greer says many of her colleagues are planning their exit strategies, too.

“I know Nashua isn’t unique in a lot of ways, and a lot of schools are facing these difficulties,” Greer said. “But you know, it gets to a point where, I know I make a difference for some kids. But I can’t sacrifice myself for that.”

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About this Author

Meg McIntyre

Bio: Meg McIntyre (she/her) is a freelance journalist reporting on education, rural issues, municipal government, the arts and more in New England and beyond. As a former staffer at The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and The Lowell Sun in Massachusetts, local news is her first love, but she's also passionate about solutions journalism, news literacy and creating a more collaborative journalism industry. Her recent work for the State House News Service in Massachusetts has been syndicated by WBUR, New England Public Media and NBC Boston, among other publications, while her recent solutions journalism work is published by GreatSchools, The Daily Yonder and the Granite State News Collaborative.