School & District Management

Staff Shortages Are Bringing Schools to the Breaking Point

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 10, 2022 6 min read
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In snow-capped Summit County, Colo., home to some of Colorado’s best skiing, here’s one way to gauge just how difficult the Omicron variant is making it to keep schools open: Just look at the lift hills.

Lines to use them are snaking down into town, because there’s a shortage of lift operators and too many of them are currently ill with COVID-19. Those factors, says Kate Hudnut, the district’s school board president, are the same ones facing the district’s schools, where dozens of staff are quarantining from the surge and substitutes are hard to find.

“Staffing is going to make or break us,” Hudnut said. “You can only shuffle your classes so much until it’s just not safe; the kids have to be supervised. We’re not looking to put them all in the cafeteria, because this is not day care. And we can cancel a P.E. class, but keep in mind that the kids who were in P.E. need to go somewhere, too.”

As the Omicron wave crashes over the country, districts are once again being forced to consider remote learning—but this time, as in Summit County, some are taking a much more surgical approach, opting to shutter just a handful of buildings if possible.

Many superintendents agree with the general, if not universal, consensus that in-person learning is far superior for students’ academic and socialization needs, and should be preserved at all costs.

What’s getting in the way, they say, is pure logistics.

In some schools, up to 30 percent of staff are out sick

Most K-12 schools remain open for in-person learning. As of Jan. 7, about 3,600 schools—or fewer than 3 percent—were closed, according to Burbio, a firm that tracks school closings and disruptions.

And while much media attention has fixated on examples of schools closing pre-emptively—Baltimore County, Md.; Newark N.J.; Milwaukee, and Detroit are among some examples—or in response to labor strife, as in Chicago, in many cases it’s happening only when district leaders can’t make the staffing math work anymore.

The Summit County district’s experience shows how even a district that’s worked hard to make in-person learning a priority can bump up against the reality of staff shortages.

After the initial April 2020 shutdown, leaders prioritized getting students back into classrooms. For the 2020-21 school year, districts used a hybrid plan that kept elementary schoolers in-person four days a week; by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, it had reverted back to a regular schedule, and had spent some of its federal school COVID relief funds upgrading ventilation systems and taking other steps to keep schools going.

Omicron has had other ideas. Summit County has one of the highest COVID case rates in the nation—it’s currently at about 325 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day average, according to the New York Times. That’s probably because the tourist-dependent county receives an influx of visitors from all over the country, some of whom don’t or won’t wear masks.

And while other countries have shuttered bars and entertainment venues, U.S. leaders have generally done the reverse, including in Summit County, where local jobs are dependent on tourism.

At the beginning of January, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said some districts would have “bumps” reopening, with 5 percent to 10 percent of their staff calling in sick. The actual figure is much higher in Summit County and in other places.

“Our threshold is that we can have 15 or 20 percent out and still make a go out of it,” Hudnut said. “We have administrators in classrooms subbing; we have central office pitching in in the schools.”

But by last Wednesday, two of the district’s nine schools had tipped over that threshold. The district moved to an asynchronous learning day on Thursday in those two schools so teachers had a chance to make lesson plans, and then launched synchronous remote learning through January 11—a five-day period to match the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent guidance for quarantining.

Other school systems are bracing for similar eventualities, trying to forewarn parents that school closing decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis as staffing numbers come in each evening.

“We want to stay open for in-person instruction as much as possible. And, we are struggling right now,” wrote Jeremy Chiappetta, the CEO and superintendent of a small network of charter schools in Rhode Island, in an email last week to families. “We have had targeted classroom closures throughout the pandemic, but this moment truly feels different. It may not be possible to keep our schools open this coming week based on the severity of the current outbreak.”

In one school, he wrote, about 27 percent of staffers were out, in addition to the school’s principal and dean.

Stories from across the country point to other limitations that are shaping school decisions. The Stonington, Conn., schools didn’t have enough bus drivers to make regular stops last week; it cancelled two school days, one of which will be treated as a snow day and the other swapped out for a teacher professional development day, the local newspaper reported.

The lack of substitute teachers has tied other districts’ hands.

“Unfortunately, we’re experiencing like 20 percent to 50 percent fill rates at best” when trying to find substitutes, said Chris Felmlee, the superintendent for the 2,000-student Southern Boone district, in Ashland, Mo., where up to 30 percent of both students and teachers in some schools have fallen ill. The district moved to remote learning for two days of classes last week in its four schools.

“There’s not a lot of reliability right now because there is such a dire sub shortage, and we’re definitely using them before we have to pull teachers out. But typically we’re having to reassign teachers on a case-by-case basis based on our data,” Felmlee said.

And some states passed laws in the fall that will make long-term closures less of an option.

The Jefferson County, Ky., schools on Jan. 10 announced that the district will use four “nontraditional instructional days” this week, reverting to remote learning in response to the surge. But state law permits only 10 of those, which means that it will have less flexibility if the surge doesn’t wane soon.

Even in in-person schools, instruction is suffering

Even though they largely prefer the quality of in-person learning, district leaders also point out that keeping schools open on short staff can mean compromising the integrity of teaching and learning.

When a teacher goes out sick and a substitute can’t be found, that usually means another teacher or staffer who may not have subject expertise has to step in. Sometimes the two classes have to be “collapsed” together—to use the lingo of educational administrators—resulting in much larger class sizes.

To avoid that option, the Southern Boone district has tapped instructional support teachers. But that has a cost, too.

“What we typically do in an effort to keep the classrooms together, we’ll pull our special teachers—who help with students who need additional reading and math—to use as subs,” said Felmlee. “The bad part of that is that the kids who need the most help aren’t getting the services they need because we’re just trying to keep the schools open.”

Many teachers have struggled to plan lessons, too, wondering whether to move forward with new content when so many students are absent—some of them sick with COVID, others kept at home by fearful or distrustful parents.

There are some encouraging signs that, while the Omicron variant is far more contagious, the wave of infections tends to peak rapidly and fall off. Case rates are decreasing in South Africa and plateauing in London, two places hard-hit by Omicron early on.

District school leaders hope so.

“I’m hopeful that in two to three weeks we’ll be out of this and we’ll be back on our feet,” said Hudnut. “But who knows?”

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