As schools head into what will be their third spring delivering education during the pandemic, the omicron variant of COVID-19 is already causing disruptions. But unlike during past surges of the virus, there’s less appetite among administrators, parents and policymakers for remote learning—much to the frustration of some teachers and students.

So how exactly do school districts plan on keeping doors to their campuses open when spiking coronavirus infections are sending teachers home sick?

School leaders are calling in pinch hitters to lead classrooms, be they substitutes, paraprofessionals or administrators. And it’s not just teacher roles that schools are scrambling to cover. Having enough staff to drive buses, get meals out and fill other support roles is essential, too.

“If you’re an administrator, you might be in a classroom making sure students get what they need,” Wes Watts, superintendent of West Baton Rouge Schools, says. “I might be serving lunch one day this week, too, and that’s OK because all roles are important.”

New Variant, Different Expectations

These days, school closures are primarily caused by staff shortages rather than student illnesses or a sense that schools can’t operate safely in person, says Bree Dusseault principal at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. And she says expectations have changed compared to other times when schools might have been more willing to go virtual.

“We now know that students do tend to fare better when they’re in person, so I think what we’re seeing is, districts equipped with this information and the ability to put preventive measures in place are really trying to stay open,” says Dusseault, whose research focus is on the impact of COVID-19 on education. “That said, they’re not all able to do it.”

In the center’s tracking of 100 large and urban school districts, two-thirds were open with in-person learning as of last week. Another 11 tracked schools had shifted to remote classes. The latest figures from Burbio’s K-12 School Opening Tracker show nearly 3,200 schools didn’t offer in-person classes for at least one day during the previous week. That’s down from 5,400 schools experiencing in-person learning disruptions the first week of January.

Superintendent Lisa Witte, who leads the Monadnock Regional School District in Southwest New Hampshire, says her school board’s directive is clear: Do all you can to keep kids on campus.

“We started the school year short-staffed, so it doesn’t take as many absences as it used to to put us in a critical staffing situation,” Witte says. “At the end of the day, my principals know the buildings much better than I do—who can fill in for who, who shouldn’t fill in for who—and I trust them to tell me when we’re at that point.”

At the national level, the White House has likewise signaled its desire for districts to keep their doors open. It announced Wednesday that it’s increasing the number of COVID-19 tests available to schools to 10 million per month, split evenly between on-site rapid tests and lab capacity for PCR tests. The Biden administration is “doubling down on our commitment to keeping all schools safely open for full-time in-person learning,” said the administration’s news release.

Dusseault says districts are turning to “creative solutions” to keep schools staffed, like relying on substitute teachers and shuffling internal staff.

Watts, who spoke to EdSurge from a conference of Louisiana superintendents, says calculating when to close a school is more nuanced than reaching a number of staff who are out for the day. It depends on their role—teacher, bus driver, cafeteria worker, administrator—and whether there’s anyone in the district who can realistically fill in.

“You can’t really put it to a percentage. If a teacher calls in sick and [the principal] says we don’t have anybody to cover for them, I can send somebody to my office down there,” Watts says. “We (superintendents) talked about it a lot, and we couldn’t come to a consensus as to what that threshold would be.”

Substitute teachers continue to be in high demand. One school district in Texas is pleading with parents to step in, reasoning that since parents are already exposed to their kids’ germs, they are part of the bubble of the school community. Another in Minnesota turned to students to fill gaps in the janitorial staff (at $15.30 an hour).

“The jury’s out whether that’s more or less effective than asking students to learn from home until staff are able to come back,” Dusseault says.

Hundreds of kids walked out of Brooklyn Tech today to protest the continuation of in person school during the Omicron wave and to call for a remote option pic.twitter.com/0HMVAFM2YC

— Jillian Jorgensen (@Jill_Jorgensen) January 11, 2022

Balancing Act

While folks in districts like those of Watts and Witte want their schools open, there’s been pushback in other parts of the country as the omicron variant sends coronavirus infections soaring. New York City students staged a walkout this week to drive home their demands for remote learning, and the Chicago Teachers Union reached a grudging deal with the district over thresholds for shifting to virtual. One student’s Reddit post about his emptying school went viral, arguing that so few healthy employees were around that learning loss was happening in the building.

Witte says her New Hampshire community will be ready to go online or extend the school year if needed, but there comes a point where mitigating lost classroom time by adding makeup days during the summer just isn’t effective.

“We are in a rural district, and we have kids where school is their ‘safe space,’ and parents depend on schools so they continue to work,” Witte says. “Some of the socioeconomics of different districts affects their [students] based on whether parents are able to stay home and whether kids have internet at home, and whether parents are able to guide their kids through a remote environment even during the short term.”

Watts likewise says that given how challenging remote learning has been for his students, the benefits of having kids in classrooms far outweigh any potential setbacks from bringing in substitutes.

If there’s one lesson from this latest coronavirus surge, Dusseault says, it’s that community relationships (read: volunteers willing to step up) are invaluable.

“Schools that have leveraged community resources have more to rely on at a moment of crisis like this, so actions that a district takes to be prepared can ripple out months later when the event happens,” Dusseault says, “2021-2022 is not proving to be any more stable than the year prior, and it’s going to take a toll on our students and our educators this year.”

source: Read More, EdSurge Articles

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