Jan 16, 2022 - Health

America struggles to keep schools open

Illustration of a burning chalkboard.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As Omicron continues to spread, schools across the U.S. are struggling with teacher shortages that have forced them to consolidate classes and lean on administrative staff to fill in as substitutes.

Why it matters: School closures and virtual classes can do lasting damage to kids' academic achievement — but so can some of the accommodations schools have had to make in order to stay open.

  • "If staff is out and you're just farming fifth-graders into a first-grade classroom, is that learning or is that babysitting?" asks John Coneglio, president of the Columbus Education Association teachers union.
  • "How long can we sustain this? We already have people leaving their jobs," said Kelly Wilson, president of Minnesota's Osseo Local #1212 teachers union.

What's happening: COVID has forced schools to shutter this month across America, often on a building-by-building basis as districts deal with mounting absences on the fly.

  • Chicago has been a focal point for this battle as the city's teachers union stayed home, cancelling days of classes over what it believes are unsafe work conditions.
  • Where schools have attempted to stay open, teachers are in short supply. Columbus City Schools was 124 substitute teachers short of its goal of 740 during the first week of January, according to district spokesperson Jacqueline Bryant.

How they're coping: In the Washington, D.C., area, like many school districts around the country, teachers often have to add students into their classrooms or miss their planning periods to teach other classes.

The impact: One Denver-area high school senior said that it's "back to the whole 2020 [thing]." He added that virtual class felt like "just hearing the teacher talk and their face and their voice" for the entire period.

The big picture: None of these issues taking teachers to the brink are new, but COVID has just made them worse, as Axios' Erica Pandey reported.

  • "It's a problem that existed pre-pandemic, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the teacher shortage will not disappear with the pandemic," said Michael Rice, Michigan's state superintendent of public instruction.

The bottom line: Schools across America are trying to stay open, but it's still anyone's guess how effective that strategy will ultimately be — for everyone involved.

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to clarify that Columbus City Schools was short of its goal for substitute teachers, not teachers generally.

Axios' Taylor Allen, Alayna Alvarez, Monica Eng, Nick Halter, Paige Hopkins and Alissa Widman Neese contributed to this report.

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