District Battles Staff Shortage Risk and Forces Teachers’ Hands to Allow In-Person Instruction
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Written by Asher Leukhardt
January 20, 2021
As the number of new cases of COVID-19 declines to acceptable levels, Birmingham Public Schools (BPS) joins school districts across the state and nation defying staffing problems to meet demand for in-person instruction at all levels of K-12 education. School officials say teacher quarantines and isolations coupled with substitute teacher shortages have the potential to force school closures. To meet community and Board of Education expectations to provide some in-person instruction now, the district is requiring all middle and high school teachers to teach in-person or take a leave of absence, despite the majority of teachers that do not want to return in-person in any form.
Substitute Shortage Threatens In-Person Return
With the risk COVID-19 exposure present in teachers’ lives in and out of school, it’s exceedingly likely several middle and high school teachers will require in-person substitutes for their 10-14-day quarantines following COVID-19 exposure or illness.
“We are going to certainly, probably, have situations where a teacher may have been exposed and will have to quarantine. [Administrators] are going to have to find someone to be in that class for potentially up to 10 days,” BPS Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Dean Niforos said.
Seaholm Assistant Principal Michael Wicker reports that nearby districts have had difficulty finding enough substitutes to staff their recent in-person returns. According to Niforos, normal substitutes from BPS’ substitute subcontractor, EDUStaff, have grown increasingly scarce because of the average substitute’s older age and associated COVID-19-related health concerns.
“We probably lost at least a third to a half of our subs that just are not going to be regularly available, that’s just my guess,” Niforos said. “We had a lot of our substitutes communicate to us early in the year that they would not be available for anything in-person given their health situations.”
To fill-in during hybrid instruction, substitutes must have BPS technology access and navigate livestreaming technology. Ordinary EDUStaff substitutes don’t have the required tech access and or training to fulfill these needs, Niforos said. To cope with this problem and provide schools with a backstop between them and the stressed substitute system, BPS has hired 2-3 full-time building substitutes per school.
Even with three full-time designated substitute teachers, Seaholm Principal Kyle Hall is concerned it may not be enough to sustain the staffing required to keep school open.
“Yes, [I’m] very worried about that. It is possible that we will have to shut down because of lack of substitutes,” she said. “I can tell you that, starting next week [week of January 17], I’m already using all three. Now, if somebody else needs a sub, just because they’re sick, or… somebody has to quarantine, we have 2-3 people [out], and now I’m trying to find 2-3 subs… It is possible, and, I would say, likely, that at some point, we’re just not going to have subs enough for the building.”
Once full-time building substitute reservoirs are exhausted, administrators have few remaining options to staff the school. They may call upon an EDUStaff substitute without the tech access to supervise in-person students or, alternatively, pay teachers to substitute during their planning hours as sometimes happens in a normal school year. Healthy teachers in quarantine may Zoom into their classrooms while another adult supervises in-person.
If no substitute can be found, Wicker says, students will be supervised in a common area.
“If we are short on subs, we will relocate students to a larger area, such as the cafeteria, so multiple classes can be supervised at once,” he said. “This is not an ideal situation, but I believe it is the plan.”
Wicker says approximately 5-10 substitutes were required for pre-pandemic school days, however, he projects fewer absences related to normal teacher activities, travel and professional development outside of school.
Facing Few Options, Teachers Effectively Forced Back In-Person
BPS is requiring all middle and high school teachers to return in-person with no option for virtual teaching. In a survey presented to the Board of Education in December, 52% of high school teachers indicated they were willing to teach in person. Hall said the majority of teachers don’t want to return. She says they face a difficult dilemma.
“They really don’t have an option. They have to make a decision whether they want to continue teaching or if they’re leaving the position,” Hall said. “It’s a really tough decision for them to make because the paid leave only goes so long, and then they lose their pay and benefits. It’s been pretty tough for a lot of the teachers that don’t feel comfortable returning, but obviously don’t feel comfortable not getting a paycheck and [not] having benefits. …The district is requiring that you come back at this time.”
If teachers decide they will not return in person, they may take a leave of absence or retire. Teachers taking leaves of absence may use available paid sick days until they are exhausted. Once the unpaid period begins, benefits, including health care, expire one to two months later, depending on the date the unpaid period begins, the district’s bargaining agreement with teachers states. Federal COVID-19 relief provisions that previously allowed individuals to qualify for emergency paid sick leave were allowed to expire in December, and mandates for leave were extended as unpaid leave only.
One of Seaholm’s retiring teachers, Barbara Harte, voices that many teachers are returning only because they have to.
“I wish the district would have explored remaining all-remote until all staff members could be vaccinated,” Harte said. “I know many of my colleagues are returning only because they have no other choice.”
Five Seaholm teachers will not be returning in-person. Two, including Harte, are retiring at the end of the second trimester and three are taking leave. Hall says this is down from November when about a dozen teachers weren’t going to return at a time when local COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing and no vaccine was available. Niforos and Derby Middle School Assistant Principal Fred Costello also said many more teachers were planning to retire or take leave in the fall elsewhere in the district.
The two retirees will livestream into their classrooms for the remaining six weeks of their careers while their students are supervised by either their permanent replacements or a substitute. Three long-term substitutes with terminating 6-month contracts were hired to replace the three teachers taking leave. Those teachers will have the opportunity to step back into their positions at the end of the school year.
Why Teachers Are Being Required to Return
The expectations of the approximately two-thirds of BPS families in-favor of an in-person instruction are part of why BPS is offering an in-person option now, weeks before Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s March 1 goal. Assistant Superintendent Niforos said teaching into the classroom from home isn’t an option because it’s not what many families and the board want.
“You have to be in-person to teach,” he said. “I understand the frustration and the concern that it created, it’s just the expectation from the community and the board.”
Niforos also said in-person instruction isn’t logistically possible with many teachers at home, since it would require a large number of substitutes to supervise students.
“We just don’t have enough substitute teachers to be able to do that,” he said.
For medically compromised teachers invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Niforos said the district, which consulted its legal counsel on the matter, maintains that teaching virtually would not be a reasonable accommodation during in-person instruction periods. The only exceptions to this policy are for teachers retiring at the end of the trimester and for teachers livestreaming into their classrooms for temporary at-home quarantines.
The retiring Harte, who suffers from asthma, says she’s been treated well by the district and that Hall and Niforos fairly accommodated her needs by allowing her to livestream into her in-person classes. However, she laments that many of her at-risk coworkers don’t have a similar ability to prioritize their health.
“Many of my colleagues have serious life-threatening health problems that make this virus extremely dangerous, and they do not have the financial luxury of retirement or a long-term unpaid leave,” she said. “It’s a horrible situation to be in, deciding whether your physical health or your financial health should be put in jeopardy.” She acknowledges, “I do understand the challenges of the district.”
Niforos reassures that the district has worked diligently to grant teachers’ requests for enhanced masks, plexiglass shielding and other PPE.
More than one-third of high school students most recently indicated they were electing to continue virtual-only education. Between both high schools, this may have allowed for the formation of a virtual academy with virtual-only teachers, similar to the one offered on the elementary level. Niforos says, however, that this model would’ve been highly complicated to staff on such a short timeline and would severely restrict the curriculum of all-virtual students.
“We considered it, but it was too complicated for us to do with the timing that we had,” he said. “In order to have done that, we probably would’ve had to have made the decision to [have] a virtual academy back in the spring and commit to the staffing that it takes.”
Many teachers and administrators have voiced the opinion that the district has done the best possible job weighing certain staff concerns and the community interest in in-person instruction.
“The district is doing the very best it can, given all the stakeholder input, to balance everyone’s preferences and needs to the best of our ability,” BPS Deputy Superintendent Rachel Feder said.
The Board voted 7-0 on Tuesday, January 19 in favor of a resolution to maintain the current instructional plan. No member of the BPS Board of Education has responded to questions emailed to them at the time of this article’s publication, nor have any firmly declined to comment. If they provide answers to The Highlander’s questions or decline to, this article will be updated.
Board Trustee Nicole McKinney inquired in Tuesday’s meeting on the degree of vaccine rollout to teachers, and trustees Jennifer Rass and Adrienne Young stated their reservations against returning to full in-person elementary instruction with no social distancing before teachers have the opportunity to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
Teachers Meet Conflicting Interests as Masked Faces File into School
As plans to return are realized, multiple Seaholm teachers have shared of a difficult internal conflict between the best interest of their students and the best interest of themselves and their families.
Here’s what Seaholm’s department-leading teachers and staff have to say about the return.
School officials say the forceful return has had a cost on staff morale.
“It is difficult,” Principal Hall said. “It affects morale, it affects the relationship between the administration (central office) and building administration and the teachers, because most of them would prefer remote learning,” Hall said. “It’s that balance between what’s best for students, which I think is coming back, but it’s an individual choice, but the teachers don’t really get that choice. Their choice is, do you want a job or do you want to stay home. You can imagine that that affects you, affects your morale and your thoughts about return.”
To counter this trend, Hall says administrators have worked to provide staff with as much support as they can while still prioritizing students.
“Our job, as the administration, is to make them feel as safe as they possibly can and that they feel we will answer their questions and be as transparent as possible as we move forward,” Hall said. “We’re desperately trying to do all of those things. And, at the same time, remember, that we’re focusing on the student and what’s best for students at this time.”
Deputy Superintendent Feder likens the change in the teacher’s role throughout the pandemic to when school safety became a top concern in education following several mass shootings in American schools. She says, they now have to consider putting their life on the line as teachers and decide for themselves if that risk is something they’re willing to accept in their job.
“One of, what I think, the paradigm shifts our country has undergone, is our educators have been deemed essential employees at a time when they weren’t prior,” she said. “Now, people are being required to say, ‘Am I willing to stay in a profession where I’m deemed an essential employee?’”
Harte is optimistic that teachers’ resilience will define their path through the difficult situation of some conflicting staff and student interests “If there is anything I know about teachers in general it is this – they are among the most flexible people I know,” she said. “We, as a group, subscribe to the Tim Gunn mantra, ‘make it work.’ We have been ‘making it work’ since March of 2020. No one wants to be back to normal more than teachers do. We love the banter, the relationships, yes even the noise of a busy classroom more than anyone. I will miss those things. I just wish we could have made this transition back a little bit safer.”
Asher Leukhardt is a senior at Seaholm High School where he has been a student journalist since his freshman year. He covers Seaholm and BPS policy and currently serves as Co-Editor-in-Chief. Contact him at email@example.com.
Maya Kolton is a sophomore at Seaholm High School and serves as staff photographer. She runs her own photography businesses and is on Instagram @koltonpics.
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