Lowell Elementary School in Chicago, where classes were canceled on January 5, after a dispute between the teachers’ union and district officials over Covid-19 protocols. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
The problem started way before omicron.
Schools in Cleveland, Ohio, will be remote for the first week of January. So will schools in Charles County, Maryland; Reading, Pennsylvania; and Weehawken, New Jersey. The Chicago public schools closed on January 5 following a dispute between teachers and district officials over how to handle surging Covid-19 cases.
All told, at least 4,500 schools across the country will close their physical buildings for one day or more in the first week of 2022, according to the data service Burbio, which has been tracking school calendars since 2020. Some level of school disruption was inevitable with the omicron variant, which is driving record case counts and swamping hospitals, transit lines, and emergency services around the country. But America’s public schools were struggling to stay open even before the latest surge hit, beset by quarantines, staffing troubles, and, sometimes, burnout among educators stretched to the breaking point by two years of pandemic instruction.
You might not hear about it as much as disruptions in restaurants, retail, or shipping, but schools are facing a pandemic labor shortage, one that hampers their ability to respond to any crisis, let alone one as widespread as omicron. This one has been years in the making: public schools were under-resourced for decades before Covid-19 hit, with decrepit buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and underpaid teachers. Now that is coming back to haunt school districts as they struggle to stay open amid yet another virus surge.
“Our schools are in a crisis across the nation,” said Sobia Sheikh, a high school math teacher in Washington state. That crisis started long before omicron, and without real changes to the way America values and funds its public school system, it’s likely to last long after it’s gone.
The problems at public schools started long before omicron
School closures have been a fixture of the pandemic since March 2020, when K-12 institutions in all 50 states shifted to remote learning to help stem the spread of Covid-19. Those closures varied in length from a few months in the South and Midwest to more than a year in parts of California, but by early 2021, teachers were getting vaccinated, case rates were falling, and experts were cautiously predicting a normal fall for kids, educators, and families.
Mario Tama/Getty Images A teacher waits in a socially distanced standby line for people hoping to receive Covid-19 vaccine doses in Encino, California, in January 2021.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. Instead, public schools dealt with the rise of the delta variant, which helped ensure that quarantines were a fact of life for many students and some staff — in Los Angeles, for instance, 3,500 students were quarantined as close contacts in the first week of the fall 2021 semester alone.
Quarantines affected kids, who lost in-person class time, and families, who had to scramble to arrange child care, but they also affected teachers and other school staff. When a teacher is sick or in quarantine, someone has to cover their classes. The same is true for bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other adults in school buildings — somebody has to do the work, or the school can’t function.
Usually, substitute teachers can fill in the gaps, at least in the classroom. But in the fall, districts around the country started facing substitute shortages, brought on in part by the large number of teachers who had left the field since the pandemic began.
That meant that when teachers were out, other staff at the school had to handle their classes — on top of their regular work. “Every day we’d get emails: Hey, we need someone to cover fourth period, sixth period, seventh period,” Sheikh said. At her school, counselors, each one already responsible for helping 400 to 500 students dealing with the stress, anxiety, and depression brought on by the pandemic, were pulled into the classroom to serve as substitute teachers.
Without an adequate pool of substitutes, even a small number of staff absences could lead to chaos for a school. “Let’s say that as little as 5 percent of the teachers are sick or in quarantine,” said Dennis Roche, president of Burbio. “Way more than 5 percent of the rest of the staff is going to be involved at some point trying to cover those classes.”
All those recruited to help out when colleagues are in quarantine, meanwhile, lose time they might ordinarily spend grading or planning class for the next day. Too much of this can mean classes or even whole schools have to shut down, often suddenly — in late fall, Burbio saw an increase in closures for staffing reasons.
In addition to quarantines, education during a public health crisis has brought with it new challenges that many teachers never thought they’d have to face. “The job of the typical teacher has been extended,” as Roche put it, to include tasks like mask enforcement, surface disinfecting, and contact tracing.
Teachers also had to deal with, and do their best to mitigate, the impact of the pandemic on students and their learning. “Our students hadn’t been in the classroom for almost a year and a half,” Sheikh said. “They’re trying to relearn how to do everything.”
Many were so used to going to school online that even using a textbook or writing in a journal was a struggle. “Teaching just those basic skills, but also focusing on their mental health, was a lot,” Sheikh said.
Physical health, for students, teachers, and families, was still on the line as well, even with the arrival of vaccines. Kareem Neal, who teaches special education science and social studies in Phoenix, recalled that this fall, the mother of one of his students died of Covid-19. The student was hospitalized, too. “It’s hard to teach a class when you’re looking at that missing face in that chair,” Neal said.
All the while, teachers had to contend with anger from parents — and politicians — who blamed them for months of remote school earlier in the pandemic. The demands of virtual learning drove many parents deep into burnout in 2020 and 2021, and lawmakers and candidates around the country blamed teachers’ unions for keeping schools closed. Teachers often countered that they just wanted the resources — like masks, ventilation, and manageable class sizes — necessary to open schools safely. Conflicts have continued into 2022, with Chicago public schools shutting down in the first week of January when the local teachers’ union and district officials could not agree on Covid-19 protocols.
Around the country, a teachers-versus-parents dynamic has developed. Losing the goodwill of their communities — something that made a difficult and low-paid job more rewarding in pre-pandemic times — has been tough on many educators, Neal said. “A lot of teachers feel like the world doesn’t like us anymore.”
Doing a job that’s harder than ever, and often doing one or two colleagues’ jobs on top of it, has been devastating for teachers’ mental health. “We’re all burnt out,” Sheikh said. After this year, “I don’t know if I will be coming back.”
An increase of teachers leaving the profession, of course, will only make the staffing crisis even worse. To prevent that, some schools in the fall began canceling classes to give staff mental health days, Roche said. In some cases, the goal wasn’t relaxation but giving teachers time to complete the work they’d missed when they were covering for other teachers.
Still, for many families, the effect was the same: another day when their kids couldn’t go to school, after so many days already lost to the virus.
And that was before omicron hit.
The new surge is stretching already understaffed schools to the breaking point
The new variant has quickly led to a surge in cases around the country, creating even more difficulties for already overstretched public schools. A staffing shortage that was bad before omicron could now be catastrophic, especially since the new variant appears better able to evade prior immunity, making vaccinated teachers, staff, and students increasingly vulnerable to breakthrough infections (the vaccines still appear to protect well against severe illness from omicron). While vaccines for children once seemed to spell the end of the pandemic’s impact on American schools, it seems that’s no longer the case.
Many districts have launched testing programs to help students come back to school more safely, with some, like Seattle and Beechwood, Ohio, also delaying the start of classes to allow time for testing. Others are delaying their start dates by a week or more.
Some schools have already had to close temporarily because of staffing shortages. Elsewhere, leaders are warning of potential closures to come. “It becomes unmanageable at a certain point to keep classrooms staffed,” Boston Mayor Michelle Wu told reporters on January 3.
David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images A custodian cleans a classroom doorknob at the Donald McKay K-8 School in Boston earlier this week in preparation for students returning to school from winter recess.
“I have a feeling that we’re going to go back to online learning, and we’re going to be back in, like, March of 2020,” Sheikh said. She worries for the emotional well-being of her students, who were finally getting used to in-person learning again this fall. “Some of my students were like, I don’t want to go on winter break. I don’t want to stay home,” Sheikh said.
Studies in the US and around the world have found that student learning suffered when classes were remote, and many teachers were no fan of the system either, with educators ranking the challenges of virtual instruction among their top pandemic stressors in one recent study. At the same time, some fear that in-person school during omicron may simply become untenable. Sheikh’s school has one nurse for 2,500 students, making it nearly impossible to do any real contact tracing. “There’s no way to contain these Covid cases,” she said.
Teachers, staff, students, and families are all caught between a rock and a hard place: a return to remote learning is disruptive for everyone, but rising caseloads on top of two years of overwork and burnout among educators may make it simply impossible to operate a school.
Pandemic education isn’t just about public health — it’s about labor
Even at this late date, however, there are still ways to help schools weather the surge — and whatever comes next in a pandemic that continues to frustrate our desire for a return to normal.
It starts with understanding why public schools were understaffed going into the omicron wave. Schools were affected by all the same labor-market pressures as other sectors of the economy in 2020, including parents (a majority of them mothers) quitting their jobs because of child care disruptions, and older and immunocompromised people leaving front-line work because it was too dangerous, said Erica Groshen, senior economics adviser at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. But there’s a big reason school districts haven’t been able to entice workers back, or find new ones: money.
The higher an employer sets wages, the more people will be willing to do the job, Groshen said. A labor shortage typically happens when employers want more workers than they can attract at the wage they’re offering.
In public education, pay has been stagnating for decades, with teachers making 21.4 percent less than other workers with comparable education and experience as of 2018. Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and substitutes often make even less. Today, when workers are urgently needed, letting pay fall so low “is coming back to bite a lot of school districts,” Groshen said.
Fixing the shortage, then, starts with simply paying people more. Substitutes, in particular, need higher pay and better working conditions, including access to a planning period during the day, Sheikh said.
Watchara Phomicinda/MediaNews Group/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images Long-term substitute teacher Veronica Roman teaches fifth-grade students language arts at Hunt Elementary in San Bernardino, California, in September 2021.
Of course, raising wages is easier said than done in a time of plunging education budgets, but the pandemic may be a wakeup call for local, state, and federal lawmakers to adjust their budgetary priorities. “This may be a time when various school districts realize that they really do need a higher budget, because they need to be able to fulfill these jobs,” Groshen said.
In addition to boosting pay, districts can address staffing shortages by creating more paths for teacher’s aides and people with some college to become full-time teachers. They can also attract more people by improving career development, “so that you’re not hiring people for a dead-end job,” Groshen said. Ideally, these solutions would work in tandem with higher pay to help get more people into the profession and retain them.
Beyond better pay for teachers and staff, districts need to ensure they have a manageable workload, Sheikh said. Right now, a lot of schools are responding to burnout by offering professional development sessions devoted to self-care, which don’t really fix the problem. “They’re like, Hey, here’s how you can tend to your own emotional needs,” Sheikh said. “And it’s like, No, I just need more time.”
None of these solutions are quick fixes, and they’re unlikely to stop omicron from disrupting schools across the country in the weeks ahead. However, if districts can reckon with the deeper problems the pandemic has exposed, they may be able to make the next wave of Covid-19 — and the crisis after that, whatever it may be — easier for educators, students, and families to bear.