Nina Schwalbe: Why are we closing schools?
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.