The Debate About School Safety Is No Longer Relevant

Even in places where schools want to reopen, too many teachers are sick or quarantining for classrooms to operate, and substitutes cannot fill the void.

About the author: Elliot Haspel is an early-childhood policy expert and the author of Crawling Behind: America's Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It.

Getty / the atlantic

For months, the debate about whether to open schools has centered on one question: Are schools safe? The only trouble is, this hardly matters anymore. Except in the few remaining regions with modest rates of viral spread, the transmission risk from and within schools is now beside the point. So many teachers and staff members are sick, quarantining, or have stepped down that many schools trying to remain open or to reopen just do not have the personnel available to do so well.

The examples are countless. Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, in announcing their shift to remote learning, stated that one of their primary reasons for doing so was that “keeping enough staff in schools for supervision is becoming a real concern. It is especially difficult, and impossible on some days, to have enough licensed teachers in classrooms delivering quality instruction.” Jeannine Nota-Masse, the superintendent of Rhode Island’s second-largest school district, was quoted in a local news story as saying, “Now you have students in the building and not enough adults to cover for the adults that are home for various reasons.” One elementary school near Milwaukee lacked 10 teachers on a recent day; Metro Nashville Public Schools has, according to The Tennessean, “had more than 200 teachers or staff members in quarantine or self-isolation each week since the end of October.” In a Reuters survey of 217 districts across 30 states, about half reported significant staffing issues—and this was before Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the arrival of deep winter.

The reason for the shortages isn’t intransigent teachers’ unions or unreasonable fear; it’s simply that the virus is too widely spread. Upwards of 200,000 new COVID-19 cases are reported most days, and Anthony Fauci recently warned that January numbers will likely look even bleaker. The new viral variant, if it takes hold in the U.S., may worsen matters further. With so much spread, a significant number of teachers, nurses, bus drivers, food-service workers, custodians, and other staff in any given district will inevitably catch COVID-19 or be exposed, week after week. That’s bad enough on its own, and depending on a district’s particular policies for quarantining contacts (for instance, whether everyone in a building with a positive case must isolate, versus only those who had direct contact with the infected individual), a further multiplier effect can exacerbate the consequences for staffing.

Substitute teachers alone cannot solve this problem. There just aren’t enough professional substitutes. A substitute shortage existed prior to COVID-19; it’s worse now. Large districts such as Denver Public Schools are working with a quarter of their usual substitute pool. Districts are responding by grabbing every warm body available, but educational quality suffers under an endless parade of increasingly unqualified substitutes, continual toggling between in-person and virtual instruction, and art and music teachers pressed into service as classroom teachers. When I taught fourth grade in a public school outside Phoenix and had to miss a day, I entrusted my substitutes with little more than review and worksheet packets. That’s no knock on substitutes—I was one myself before my stint as a full-time teacher—but running a classroom requires relationships.

In many respects, the entire debate about reopening schools—focused as it is on safety and what precautions districts should take—is now happening on a plane one dimension removed from the operational realities schools labor under. It is a conversation we should have had last spring and summer and are instead having this winter, when it’s totally unrealistic. As the journalist David Zweig found, some districts that successfully opened this fall had begun planning back in April. Discussing the limited role schools play in spreading COVID-19—and even leading union figures such as the American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, acknowledge this—is no longer useful.

With the virus completely out of control, what is the right conversation to be having? Given staffing shortages, districts need to set their sights narrower and undertake something achievable: Reopen only kindergarten through second grade plus special-education classes. That strategy significantly reduces the number of staff members and substitutes required to appear in person, minimizing disruption while providing face-to-face instruction to the students who need it most. Even the resumption of in-person learning for just those grades is more likely to be successful if districts ensure that their quarantine policies align with expert recommendations. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently reduced the suggested length of isolation after coronavirus exposure to 10 days, or seven with a negative test, mirroring the recommendations of many European nations.

More sustainably, teachers and other frontline school staff—as well as child-care practitioners, many of whom serve the children of teachers and whose programs are in similarly dire staffing straits—must be considered a priority population for receiving COVID-19 vaccines. Widespread inoculation of the teaching force will break through the staffing choke point, unlocking the ability to open all grade levels for in-person instruction. Vaccination will also serve as a political salve, helping allay teachers’ fears of getting sick, and mitigating against districts that recklessly choose to not implement vigorous precautions.

Finally, districts are in desperate need of federal funds so they can hire a robust second string to at least put a finger in the dam. While the new stimulus bill is a first step, it offers a fraction of what is needed. Once the Biden administration is in office, Congress must quickly pass additional relief for K–12 and child care. This goes beyond just substitute teachers: A lack of replacement bus drivers can cripple a district just as easily. Even if staff members are designated a priority population, getting them both vaccine doses will take time; the U.S. has more than 3 million teachers, to say nothing of support personnel. Although some districts are bumping pay for substitutes, most unlicensed subs are still making only about $100 to $125 a day. That may well need to be temporarily doubled or tripled, but districts don’t have enough money.

The staffing shortages should, to be blunt, change the entire conversation. The issue should lead off every opinion piece on schools and every school-board meeting, be part of every vaccination discussion. Parents have to grasp how rapidly the shortages can and will disrupt their expectations of where and how their children are educated. Those who support in-person instruction—including many Republican leaders—must understand that relief dollars are a prerequisite. There is no in-person school without staff. Until we reckon with that simple, vital truth, the rest of the schooling debate is but sound and fury, signifying nothing and helping no one.