Close Schools to Keep Teachers?

The high school in my neighborhood is missing well over one-third of its staff right now.  Not just teachers, but also administrators, office staff, and support staff.  There is a real dearth of adults on that campus.  People are sick, quarantining, or taking care of someone who is sick or quarantining.  The kids who are showing up (the attendance rate at this school has averaged less than 80% on any given day since the spring semester began) are not currently receiving much in the way of an education, and many are acting out—stealing and vandalizing, loading trash cans with firecrackers, escaping the subs and roaming the halls.  It’s chaos.

Staff shortage has driven many school campuses into crisis mode, and teachers are at the breaking point.  The last two years have been hard on everyone, but teachers—front line workers in every sense of the word—have yet to catch a break.

Many teachers have been covering unfilled positions for months already, forced to sub in another classroom during their already scant planning time.  Now January’s unprecedented teacher shortage is becoming just too much.  Districts are at risk of burning out and thus losing the teachers who haven’t fled yet.  Moreover, it seems simply impossible to keep a campus open when 30% (or more) of staff are out sick, caring for someone who is sick, or at home because child care for their own family has become unavailable.

How can a school operate without enough adults in the building?  How can kids learn without enough adults in the building?  How can kids be safe without enough adults in the building?  How can districts retain the teaching staff that they still have without over-working and taking for granted those who haven’t given up already?

This is a loaded issue with no easy answers, and opposing stances on school closures both have valid points.  Virtual learning is the worst.  Closing a campus or district altogether is a funding nightmare.

But losing an entire teaching staff to burnout and rage is a nightmare, too.  And it’s a real concern right now.  Teachers aren’t getting hazard pay or large pay increases like many health workers do when they step up to fill empty positions in understaffed hospitals.  Instead, they are losing their minds covering empty classrooms in their already cannibalized planning times, teaching to upwards of 70 students when classes are combined, and creating lessons and assignments for classes that haven’t seen a teacher of record in months.  Teachers have been laboring during an impossibly difficult chapter in education for two years, and many are now forced to do the work of two or more teachers at once every single day.  This is adding incredible insult to a long-standing injury, over and over and over again, every single day as this surge continues.

The hardest part about this is that everyone out there is doing their best right now, so pointing fingers isn’t useful, nor does it illuminate any answers or new insights.  But obviously something has to change.   Where will that change come from?  How can we make this better before things become too broken to be fixed?  Or is this just how things are going to be for a while?

Or is this the catalyst that pushes The Powers That Be to do better by teachers?  (I’m looking at you, Legislators.)

Writing about this problem will not do much to fix it, and the politics of the moment have restricted the only solutions at hand: virtual learning or temporary closures.  But if this trend continues—and Omicron is still not at its peak—we will lose teachers, and not just to temporary quarantines but to permanent resignations.  Because everyone has a breaking point.  Is keeping school open worth the teachers we will lose?

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