Thanksgiving break has been extended for hundreds of thousands of public school students across the country, as the number of educators in schools dips below critical mass. The situation has become so dire that some districts are considering walking back previous COVID-19 vaccination requirements for staff.
In Western Michigan, 20 schools canceled classes for the entirety of the week.
Classrooms in Chicago’s District 65 were also shuttered leading up to the holiday. Students in Montgomery County, Maryland, will have an extra day off this week, while the public school system is now modifying its vaccination policy to soften staffing issues. The Montgomery County School District tells Fox News that the 463 staff members who have not attested to their vaccination status will have to do so or risk loss of pay on Nov. 24 plus progressive disciplinary action, "up to and including termination." Rather than immediate termination, it’s a "balancing act between safety and the need to have all employees in place for school and office operations." This comes as districts nationwide are attempting to cope with a massive void in teachers and substitutes in the classroom.
According to a survey conducted in October by the EdWeek Research Center, just 5% of administrators reported not experiencing staffing shortages, while 45% consider their district’s shortages as "very severe" or "severe." Labor Department data shows that in September alone, 30,000 public school teachers handed in their notices.
"The fact that we’re short-staffed means that teachers are having to extend their day well past the normal workday, and that becomes an untenable situation," said Jennifer Martin, president of the Montgomery County Education Association.
Martin, who is also an English teacher, told Fox News that she fears lingering COVID-19 stressors are forcing the profession she loves into a "Great Resignation."
"If you want to have a job that gives you work-life balance that pays well and where you're respected for your professionalism. Right now, it's pretty much a question as to whether that's something you can have as an educator," she said.
The EdWeek survey pointed to the need for substitute teachers as the most pressing for schools. Barry Jagger, the associate superintendent for the Clovis Unified School District in California, told Fox News that he has had to fill-in in the classroom.
Addressing labor shortages has proved to be a steep hill for the Department of Education and Secretary Miguel Cardona. The 2021-2022 school year was supposed to be a welcome return to the classroom but many families and teachers feel the routine has yet to recover, prolonging gaps in student education and socialization. In a statement to Fox News, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said they are, "fully committed to providing the necessary resources to keep schools open for full-time, in-person learning. As we recover from the pandemic, effectively recruiting and retaining critical staff including teachers, paraprofessionals, mental health professionals, substitutes, school bus drivers, and school social workers is essential to supporting student success, engaging parents and families, and growing our economy."
The department wrote that mitigating strategies include, "include increasing wages, offering hiring bonuses for teachers and support staff, and providing permanent salary increases or premium pay," adding that the Treasury has issues a resource clarifying that many retirees, or those soon-eligible for retirement are now able to work in classrooms while still receiving their pensions. The statement continued with a pledge to provide assistance to school districts to help them understand how to fully utilize the American Rescue Plan and previous relief funding to "attract staff and stabilize their workforce."
Montgomery County alone has received over $252 million in Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) III Funding. The county has tentatively scheduled a public hearing for Nov. 30 to discuss the school district’s request to allocate a majority of those funds to remedying staffing issues.
"It's like, historical records of funding for schools and we're still having all these problems," said Carol Vidal, a member of the Baltimore County Parent and Student Coalition. "We have teachers upset, parents upset, students not getting a good education."
The Coalition includes over 4,000 members and was initially formed to reopen Baltimore County schools but Vidal said that their focus has since broadened, saying, "We just realized there was a huge system that was very disconnected from the needs of families.
In Baltimore County, families were notified that during Thanksgiving week, the district would be reducing some school schedules to include just one day of instruction instead of two. Vidal said that no direct mention was made of staffing shortages, instead, the cancellation was attributed to giving teachers a break.
She fears that rolling closures will continue and that schools are now using remote learning as a crutch that shifts the strain to parents who have to scramble to assist their children at home: "The biggest problem is for people who are low income and have unstable jobs."