School & District Management

Can Schools Really Reopen in 100 Days? How Staffing Could Hobble Biden’s Plan

By Catherine Gewertz & Stephen Sawchuk — January 27, 2021 10 min read
A parent, center, completes a form granting permission for random COVID-19 testing for students as he arrives with his daughter, left, at P.S. 134 Henrietta Szold Elementary School on Dec. 7, 2020, in New York.

A new president has stepped to the nation’s helm and made it a top priority to get students back into classrooms. But making it happen depends on one of the biggest uncertainties in K-12 right now: assembling enough staff to run the schools.

President Biden’s goal is to get most K-8 schools open in his first 100 days, which translates to early May. The plan depends on key pillars: widespread testing and vaccination to get the virus under control, better data-gathering and clear guidance, and a massive federal funding package to help schools operate with sufficient safety measures to keep people healthy.

But huge question marks hang over each pillar.

Most school districts don’t have the capacity to do large-scale testing for the coronavirus. New, more contagious variants of the virus are spreading. The vaccination rollout has been slow and uneven, and teachers in many places aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated. Congress has yet to take on Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan, and uniform federal guidance hasn’t dropped yet. And all are necessary ingredients to build the trust and safety that make it possible for more school staff to return to their buildings.

There is widespread support among superintendents for the president’s back-to-school vision, and research generally supports the idea that schools can reopen safely with robust safety measures and manageable levels of virus in the community. But in many places, virus levels are anything but manageable, and superintendents are far from certain they can pull off a safe return to their classrooms.

Those who are already offering some in-person instruction are walking a daily knife’s edge, relying on central-office administrators, community volunteers, and already-depleted substitute-staff rosters to keep lessons coming, lunches served and floors cleaned as staffers fall ill with COVID-19, quarantine, or work from home to protect their health. Those who are still in all-remote mode are uneasy knowing they’re likely next in line to face the same challenges.

“We see this tidal wave coming at us. We will have a huge need for staffing,” said Brian Baca, the deputy superintendent for human resources in New Mexico’s Los Lunas school district, near Albuquerque. “Our biggest challenge is yet to come.”

All 8,100 students have been learning remotely, but in early February, the district plans to start bringing in small groups for face-to-face instruction. Baca says he’ll need everything from teachers and classroom aides to central-office staffers and bus drivers, and he’ll need them at a time when recruiting is harder than ever. Applications have slowed to a trickle, he said, even though the district is beating the bushes on social media.

Millions of students still have no in-person instruction

It’s not clear how many schools are already providing some level of in-person instruction, since no federal data track schools’ instructional modes. By one estimate, 58 percent of the country’s 56 million K-12 students are getting some level of in-person instruction, either full time or part of the time, in a hybrid arrangement. Another analysis found that in December, 68 percent of districts offered at least some level of in-person instruction. In a December survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 81 percent of district leaders said their schools were doing so.

Wherever the elusive truth lies, it’s clear that the heat is on—again—to reopen schools, not only to restore their academic and emotional benefits for millions of children, but to enable their parents to work, feeding their families and a needy economy. Vaccinating the nation’s approximately 7.4 million K-12 school employees—and substitutes who fill in for them—will play a pivotal role.

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Jessica Littlefield, a 4th grade teacher in Hyde Park, Utah, teaches her students in person, and it’s made her nervous every single day. She has asthma, so she’s at high risk for the virus. But getting her first dose of the vaccine on Jan. 12 has calmed her nerves a bit.

“It’s a big mental boost to feel like, I’m safer, I can keep going,” Littlefield said. “I feel like, oooh, we’re almost there, I can see that finish line of feeling safe.”

Mark Bedell, the superintendent of schools in Kansas City, Mo., plans to start bringing his youngest students back to classrooms in mid-February, and aims to have all students back by mid-March. The district anticipates that 12,000 of its 14,000 students will opt for face-to-face instruction. But Bedell worries that he’ll have to delay their return if vaccines aren’t yet available for his entire staff.

“I’ve made it clear I’m not bringing people back if there’s no vaccine,” Bedell said. He’s hoping vaccines will be available for his staff the second week of February.

Shortages of subs and support staff could cripple reopenings

As teachers fall ill with COVID-19 or have to quarantine because of exposure, schools are increasingly dependent on substitute teachers. And sub pools are under growing pressure. Kelly Education, which helps districts in 35 states staff their schools, reports that demand for long-term substitute teachers has risen 34 percent since last school year. That’s strained an already-short staffing situation: even before the pandemic, districts were able to fill, on average, only 54 percent of their daily teacher absences.

In Tulsa, Okla., where the substitute pool usually hovers around 400 to 500 for 35,000 students, the current roster is down to 100, said Superintendent Deborah Gist.

Kelly Education is also seeing brisk demand for other temporary positions, including paraprofessionals, custodians, and food-service workers. The company is working to recruit younger people, since the average age in its talent pool, 44, puts many in a medically high-risk category for COVID-19, said Kelly’s president, Nicola Soares.

In Omaha, Nebraska, where many substitutes are retired and high-risk for COVID-19, school staff and central office administrators scramble to fill vacancies in remote and in-person instruction. Superintendent Cheryl Logan herself has filled in for high school Spanish classes. Every day, in a 4:30 p.m. “COVID call,” district leaders find out if the next day will be “a single-digit or double-digit day”—that is, whether the numbers of staff testing positive are in the single or double digits, Logan said. Those digits dictate the level of scrambling needed to make the next day work.

So far, only health care staff in the Omaha district, such as nurses and health aides, have been vaccinated, while teachers and other employees await their turn. Since it’s expanding its in-person instruction, Omaha is leaning hard into other safety measures in the meantime. Partnerships with the state and with a local medical school have facilitated large-scale testing, and waste-water and air sampling.

Districts that already have such partnerships are better positioned to create safe environments that will rebuild trust among school staff, experts say. The Salem-Keizer district in Oregon partnered with two local counties and a hospital to plan for vaccine distribution.

“The partnerships we had before COVID are only paying dividends now because we know how to work together and how to triage together,” said Superintendent Christy Perry.

Unions play a wildcard role as more enter negotiations with districts

In some places, union opposition could prove to be a deciding factor in reopening. Several superintendents told EdWeek they are still negotiating with their unions.

Both national unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—broadly support Biden’s plan. But regionally, there has been pushback. Chicago teachers are openly defying a district order to return to work in person. Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner says vaccination is a must before his staff can return safely; the union wants additional safety measures.

Social media is increasingly peppered with comments that Biden will have to confront the reality of union sentiment. This week, when a reporter asked him if he—an ally of teachers’ unions—felt teachers should go back to work, Biden did not address the issue of regional union opposition.

“I believe we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers, and for the help that is in those schools maintaining the facilities,” he said. “The teachers I know want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment … and we should be able to open up every school, kindergarten through 8th grade,” with sufficient safety precautions.

School staff members are dealing with “actual exposure, then quarantines, and also the fear of getting COVID. That’s creating a huge staffing issue,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. She’s optimistic, though, that most K-8 schools can reopen safely as long as there is adequate testing, vaccination, and resources for safety measures such as masks, social distancing, and healthy ventilation.

Additional issues could well become the subject of labor union bargaining. Some agreements include requirements that teachers and staff wear masks, while others commit districts to providing all teachers with PPE. Others specify neither, according to one recent tally.

Timothy Traylor, the executive director of American Classified Employees-American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2250, which represents 6,000 support staff, bus drivers, food-service personnel and others in Prince George’s County, Maryland, said his union would like to see issues such as work-at-home options, PPE and cleaning supplies, and Plexiglas partitions for clerical staff included in its memorandum of understanding, which it is currently negotiating.

Hiring staff is more challenging now

When districts flipped to remote instruction, many tried hard to keep existing staff, deploying them to other duties if necessary—from delivering meals to staffing digital device help desks. Those districts will probably be in a stronger position to increase in-person instruction, since hiring is challenging right now, said Chad Aldeman, who studies education labor patterns as policy director at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which show that the number of K-12 employees has fallen in recent months, suggest that districts chose not to hire during the pandemic, rather than doing large layoffs.

Funding will, of course, play a huge role in districts’ ability to reopen. How far those dollars can stretch will depend on the overall financial health of school districts in each state. Some had to use a portion of their CARES Act money to backfill already-underfunded operations, and districts don’t know how much more money they can count on.

Even sufficient funding and planning might not insulate districts from daily crises and disruptions, though. During a 30-minute phone call with EdWeek, Patrick Murphy, the superintendent of schools in Berkeley County, W.Va., got an email from a principal who learned nine of her staff members would be out the next day due to COVID-19 exposure.

Now the district would have to figure out if the school could summon enough staff to keep operating or would have to flip to all-remote mode. Assembling staff is particularly challenging when the district started the year with 120 vacancies, more than twice the normal number. The district was able to fill most with long-term subs, but that’s depleted the substitute roster for sudden needs like this.

“You can see what happens in situations like this,” Murphy said. “You can be crippled or grind to a halt almost immediately.”

Despite Biden’s vision of an expansion of in-person learning, some districts will ultimately decide it’s just not safe enough. Chad Gestson, the superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School district, is leading efforts to host vaccination clinics at school sites. But this month, Arizona has had some of the highest rates of new COVID-19 cases anywhere in the world. He’s just not sure whether he can offer any more face-to-face learning until those numbers decrease.

“Candidly, at this point for Phoenix Union, it’s less about a new stimulus package to bring [in-person schooling] back than about the spread of COVID,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as Can Schools Really Reopen In 100 Days? How Staffing Could Hobble Biden’s Plan

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