Teacher, bus driver shortages force districts back online

Superintendent worries that not enough attention is being paid to staff illnesses
By: | December 4, 2020
Administrators in Ector County ISD say COVID isn't spreading in schools but the district may face staffing shortages due to the virus.Administrators in Ector County ISD say COVID isn't spreading in schools but the district may face staffing shortages due to the virus.
Superintendent Melvin J. Brown, Reynoldsburg City Schools

Superintendent Melvin J. Brown, Reynoldsburg City Schools

As COVID cases rise in many communities, the inability to staff classrooms and buses due to exposure and illness is forcing an increasing number of schools to return to full online-learning.

Reynoldsburg City Schools outside Columbus, Ohio, started the year virtual but opened classrooms for hybrid learning in mid-October. It returned to online-only on the Monday before Thanksgiving, Superintendent Melvin J. Brown tells District Administration. 

“The numbers in Ohio rose drastically, and my city has some of the highest numbers per capita,” Brown says. “We were having issues with that being a danger but even more so with staff coverage for those who may have acquired the virus or are quarantined due to a close contact.”

In some cases, central office administrators have filled in in classrooms for teachers who are out sick, and when no substitutes were available. But the district had also begun to struggle to find enough bus drivers to transport students to school, Brown says.

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Reynoldsburg City Schools will remain remote until at least two weeks after winter break.

“We know people are going to gather, we know people are going to travel, we want to use a two-week window to account for that,” he says.

Brown adds that he doesn’t think enough attention is being paid to the risk in-person learning poses to teachers and other staff who are more prone to serious illness than are younger students.

“Kids don’t come to school to interact with kids,” Brown says. “They also interact with adults who tend to be more prone to illness or who have pre-existing conditions and that’s not being discussed enough.”

Since schools closed in the spring, the district has increased its rate of student connectivity from around 80% to 98%, with the help of grants and a partnership with a local internet provider.

“If we treated the internet as a utility like water and gas, families would be much more secure,” Brown says. “People don’t get the heat turned off in the middle of winter so why, in this situation, would we disconnect a kid’s internet service.”

Double COVID spike ahead?

Students continue to attend class in-person at Ector County ISD in Texas despite rising infections in that state but administrators are watching the situation closely.

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“We have a lot of safety procedures in place and they’re working,” Superintendent Scott Muri says. “We don’t have school spread. We have community spread and our school district is a victim of that as it affects teachers, bus drivers and administrators.”

Ector County ISD has only been able to cover 55% of classes with substitutes compared to about 85% in a normal year. But the district has not yet had to close any schools, Muri says.

“Between now and the winter holidays, we could end up in that situation if the predicted Thanksgiving pandemic increase comes to fruition,” Muri says. “We could be in trouble if the spike we’re already having becomes a double spike.”