As schools head into what will be the third spring to offer education during the pandemic, the omicron variant of COVID-19 is already causing disruption. But unlike during previous outbreaks of the virus, there was less desire among administrators, parents and policy makers for distance learning – to the frustration of some teachers and students.
So how exactly do school districts plan to keep campus doors open when rising coronavirus infection rates put teachers home?
School strike leaders call for classroom leadership, whether they are alternates or professional or administrative assistants. And it’s not just the teacher’s roles that schools strive to cover. It is also essential to have enough staff to drive buses, get meals, and fill other support roles.
“If you’re in charge, you might be in a class making sure students get what they need,” says Wes Watts, superintendent of West Baton Rouge Schools. “I might have lunch one day this week as well, which is fine because all roles are important.”
New variant, different expectations
Bree Dusseault, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, says school closures these days are primarily due to staff shortages rather than student illnesses or a feeling that schools cannot operate safely in person. She says expectations have changed compared to other times when schools have been more willing to join a virtual world.
“We now know that students tend to do better when they’re in person, so I think what we’re seeing is that areas equipped with this information and the ability to put protective measures in place are really trying to stay open,” says Dusseault, whose research focuses on the impact of COVID-19. on education. “However, not all of them are able to do this.”
In the center’s tracking of 100 large, urban school districts, two-thirds of them were open for in-person learning as of last week. Another 11 tracked schools turned into remote classrooms. The latest numbers from Burbio’s K-12 School Opening Tracker show that nearly 3,200 schools had not offered at least one day of in-person tutoring during the previous week. That’s down from the 5,400 schools with PLDs in the first week of January.
Supervisor Lisa Waite, who leads the Monadnock Regional School District in southwest New Hampshire, says her school board’s guidance is clear: Do everything you can to keep kids on campus.
“We started the school year with a low number of employees, so it doesn’t take as many absences as it once puts us in an awkward position of staff,” Witt says. “At the end of the day, the principals know the buildings much better than I do – who can fill in whom, who should not fill in whom – and I trust they will tell me when we are at this point.”
At the national level, the White House has similarly indicated its desire for counties to keep their doors open. It announced Wednesday that it is increasing the number of COVID-19 tests available to schools to 10 million per month, split evenly between rapid on-site testing and lab capacity for PCR tests. The administration’s press release said the Biden administration “has doubled down on our commitment to keeping all schools safely open for full-time in-person learning.”
Dosio says districts are turning to “creative solutions” to keep schools staffed, such as relying on replacement teachers and shuffling in-house staff.
Watts, who spoke to EdSurge from a conference of Louisiana supervisors, says calculating when a school will close is more accurate than arriving at the number of employees who are out for the day. It depends on their role – the teacher, the bus driver, the cafeteria worker, the administrator – and whether there is anyone in the area who can realistically do it.
“You can’t really put it on a percentage. If the teacher is calling in sickness and [the principal] “We don’t have anyone to cover, I can send someone to my office downstairs,” Watts says. “(The moderators) have talked about it a lot, and we haven’t been able to come to a consensus on what that threshold would be.”
Substitute teachers are still in high demand. A Texas school district is pleading with parents to intervene, arguing that because parents have already been exposed to their children’s germs, they are part of the school community’s bubble. Another in Minnesota turned to students to fill in the gaps in the guard staff ($15.30 an hour).
“The jury decides whether it’s more or less effective than asking students to learn from home so employees can come back,” Dusseault says.
While people in areas like Watts and Waite want their schools open, there has been opposition in other parts of the country where the omicron variant is causing higher rates of coronavirus infection. New York City students staged a strike this week to voice their demands for remote learning to their homes, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union has reached an acrimonious agreement with the district about the thresholds for switching to virtual education. A student’s post on Reddit spread about his school being empty, arguing that too few healthy employees were about that learning loss was happening on the premises.
Witte says her New Hampshire community will be ready to go online or extend the school year if necessary, but there comes a point where mitigating lost time in class by adding makeup days during the summer is ineffective.
“We’re in a rural area, we have kids where school is their ‘safe place,’ and parents depend on schools so they keep working,” Witt says. “Some social and economic aspects affect different regions [students] Based on whether parents are able to stay at home and whether children have internet at home, and whether parents are able to guide their children through a remote environment even within a short period.”
Watts also says that given how challenging distance learning can be for his students, the benefits of having kids in the classroom far outweigh any potential setbacks from bringing in alternatives.
Dosso says that if there’s one lesson from this latest coronavirus wave, it’s that community relationships (read: volunteers willing to step up) are invaluable.
“Schools that have tapped into community resources have more to rely on in a moment of crisis like this, so actions the district takes to prepare can roll out months later when the event occurs,” Dosseau says, “2021-2022 does not prove to be more stable from the previous year, and it will affect our students and teachers this year.”