ON SATURDAY, Brockton school superintendent Michael Thomas warned parents that although schools were planning to reopen Monday, he could not guarantee it.
“Unfortunately, like most districts across the state right now we need to prepare for the possibility that some schools may need to temporarily close due to under-staffing,” Thomas wrote in an email, which was posted on the district’s website.
At 7 a.m. Monday morning, parents were told that Brockton High School would be closed, though the district’s other schools would reopen.
Jessica Silva-Hodges, a spokesperson for Brockton Public Schools, said 58 staff members were absent at the high school, which is more than could have been anticipated or accommodated. Officials are now trying to figure out how to reassign staff and bring in substitute teachers. “Everything’s on the table to make sure we can reopen this week,” Silva-Hodges said.
As COVID-19 surges through the population, teachers are, unsurprisingly, contracting the virus, forcing schools to figure out how to reopen after vacation with, in many cases, far fewer staff.
The state’s teachers’ unions and Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration are once again clashing over whether schools needed to reopen in person immediately after winter break. Baker reiterated Monday morning that students need to be in school, and schools must provide 180 days of in-person learning this year. The Massachusetts Teachers Association called for schools to close Monday to allow staff to be tested, then for districts to be given the flexibility to learn remotely for a few days if they choose to for reasons of safety or staffing.
Over the weekend, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education distributed 227,000 rapid antigen tests to school districts. Districts then had to distribute the tests to staff and get the results back in time to determine how many teachers would be out. There were only enough tests for each teacher to get one, rather than the box of two state officials initially promised. While Baker said Monday that the “vast majority” of Massachusetts schools reopened, a number of school districts had late starts to give time for testing, and some closed altogether.
Interviews with school officials and advocates on Monday painted a picture of a system struggling to determine staffing needs and address them.
Stefan Czaporowski, superintendent of Westfield Public Schools, wrote to families late last week that the district has been short-staffed since the school year began. “The increase in COVID cases makes it more likely that we will struggle to staff all our schools every day over the next several weeks,” he wrote. “As a result, a school may need to use an emergency closure day if we do not have enough staff to keep all students safe and well supervised.”
Westfield schools all opened Monday. Czaporowski said in an interview that since Thanksgiving, staff absences have been running at 5 to 10 percent of the district’s 490 teachers. On Monday, 9 percent, around 45 teachers, were out. The district hired some substitutes, Czaporowski himself went to Westfield High School to cover for a sick administrator, and all eight central office staff went into schools to teach or cover for absent staff.
Czaporowski has not ruled out closing schools in the next couple of weeks. “I think the students receive a superior learning experience in person, no question,” he said. “But I do wish that we had the flexibility to go remote when necessary.” Czaporowski said if he combines two classes in the cafeteria because he lacks teachers or he has to make up a day in June in an un-air-conditioned building, that does not necessarily provide better education than a day of remote learning.
In Brookline, Superintendent Linus Guillory wrote to parents that the district was closing all schools on Monday, and planned to make up the day in June. “At this time, we simply do not have the staffing capacity to operate all schools safely,” Guillory wrote.
Guillory did not return a call for comment about how many teachers were out.
Brookline school committee chair Suzanne Federspiel said midday that while she did not yet have final numbers, staff picked up tests Sunday and enough tested positive that school leadership “made the decision to close today and take a close look at the numbers and trends and see what’s going on.” Until now, she said the schools’ COVID numbers have been low, but there is a noticeable spike.
“We want schools to be open, but we want everyone to be safe and healthy. The problem is coverage,” Federspiel said. “You need supervision and staff to be available for our children.”
In Boston, schools had always been scheduled to reopen Tuesday after a professional day on Monday. Boston school Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Monday morning that 150 teachers had called in sick, even as she pledged to try to keep schools open.
Typically, districts have pools of available substitute teachers. But these pools have had few people available during the pandemic. Substitute teachers often work in multiple districts, which creates problems if every district needs substitutes simultaneously. In addition to nationwide staffing shortages as people leave the workforce, Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy said substitute teaching is contingency, not full-time work, that pays a low wage. Many teachers still have health and safety concerns about entering school buildings.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said other than Brookline, he did not hear of any other districts with staffing issues Monday. “Most districts say testing has gone well,” Scott said. “They’re seeing a number of positive cases, but not enough that it prevented them from being able to open up and have a relatively normal day.”
But Scott said superintendents worry that if the COVID spike continues, staffing will become difficult, given that schools generally have few extra staff. Even before the recent surge, Scott said schools were turning to administrators, paraprofessionals, or other staff to teach when a teacher was out.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said the staffing problem has gotten more acute the past two to three weeks because in addition to the case surge, increased testing is picking up asymptomatic infections in people who otherwise would have come to work.
Teachers’ unions say even in districts that fully reopened, there were problems. Springfield Education Association president Tracy Little-Sasanecki said in Springfield, which reopened all schools Monday, the rapid tests were distributed over the weekend when many staff were still on vacation. The union does not know how many teachers were out sick Monday or how administrators were covering those classes. “Many would have preferred that today be a teacher work day” without students returning to school, Little-Sasanecki said. “You could have worked out the kinks in how many staff tested positive, how many staff you have in the building the next day as opposed to finding it out on the spot and having to make adjustments.”
Najimy blamed state officials for distributing too few tests at a late date, while not allowing remote learning. “We’re committed to in-person learning, but the failure of leadership on the part of governor and commissioner to plan well in advance really jeopardizes our ability to keep our schools open,” Najimy said. Najimy argued that education is not well-served when paraprofessionals get pulled away from students to teach classes, or kids are left in large study halls because a teacher is sick.
“We’re not talking weeks and months like last year,” Najimy said. “If a school decides it’s not viable for in-person learning for a few days, they need support from the state to make that work.”
Baker, at a morning press conference at Saltonstall School in Salem, reiterated his stance that it is important for kids to be in school for educational, social, developmental, and mental health reasons. He said the availability of testing lets administrators know the “state of play” and make adjustments. He said if schools need to pay for more substitutes, most districts have unspent COVID relief money available from the federal government.