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In many districts, some students are staying home to learn online while others head back into the classroom. Who will teach them?
Perhaps no place demonstrates the difficulties of staffing up for both traditional classroom teaching and remote learning as the nation’s largest school system.
Last week, as New York City again pushed off the first day of in-person for most public school students, the Independent Budget Office (IBO) concluded it would cost an extra $32 million a week to safely reopen under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hybrid model. The IBO report attributed most of the cost increase to the $19 million a week needed for hiring an additional 11,900 teachers and substitutes.
New York City’s struggle to reopen its doors is just the most high-profile example of a district grappling with how to accommodate remote and in-person learning during a global pandemic. At one point this summer, the Council of Chief State School Officers suggested the total cost of reopening schools—including hiring more staff and addressing learning loss—would be as much as $245 billion.
For his part, de Blasio has committed to hiring an additional 4,500 emergency substitutes to meet the needs of both in-person and remote learners. The substitutes (a number far short of what the IBO recommends) are expected to include existing city employees, including those previously working in city Regional Enrichment Centers, CUNY adjunct professors, graduate students and teaching students.
But that financial investment and increase in personnel is not necessarily being made in other school systems across the country, even where they are also trying to offer a combination of both classroom and distance learning. The simple fact is, hiring is expensive.
“The downside to hiring additional positions is that in Oklahoma, we—and around much of the nation—are looking at looming state budget deficits,” said Oklahoma State School Boards Association executive director Shawn Hime. “So, you have to look at what that [additional expense] means for incoming school budgets.”
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states face an estimated $615 billion budget deficit over the next three years. The shortfall will almost certainly hit school funding just as most states have finally restored the funding cuts from the last recession.
In Oklahoma, students and parents were given the option to commit to a half-year or full-year of distance learning, regardless of whether the school eventually opens to in-person learning. Based on those responses, said Hime, existing teachers were given the opportunity to be a remote-only classroom teacher for the current school year. Priority was given to educators who are high-risk to have complications if they get Covid-19 or who live with someone in a higher-risk group.
In other locations that are doing both in-person and distance learning, parents who opted to keep kids at home for remote classes are complaining that their kids appear to be afterthoughts.
In the Gilbert Public School system outside Phoenix, some parents told the Arizona Republic their children are in online classes with 50 to 70 other classmates, saying they see teachers trying to manage that many students are overwhelmed. A system spokesperson said the online format allows for bigger classes because teachers will pull students into smaller groups.
A mother in Indiana told the Indianapolis Star that when some children moved to the hybrid model after being all virtual, that meant her son, who will be staying at home for health reasons, got left behind. This is because teachers are juggling both students in the classroom and virtual learning.
“It’s been pretty rough for him, The teachers are doing an amazing job, but for kids like mine the plan isn’t equitable,” said Jessica Savage about her second-grade son.
In rural Washington County, Maryland, administrators created after-hours teacher positions so that students who were unable to participate in distance learning during the day could have support for their lessons or tech support after school hours.
The county was able to staff these positions—at least one per school—with existing teachers who applied internally and for the most part are also teaching during the day. All the more than 40 on-call teachers are connected through one Google classroom, says administrator Gary Willow, so that if they can’t immediately answer a question, one of their colleagues at another school can.
“This was the result of both our experience during the spring and the feedback in our parent surveys that showed a need to respond to those that need help in evenings,” said Willow, who is associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “Learning doesn’t stop at 4 p.m. and we want to accommodate that.”
The reluctance to hire even temporary staff isn’t just a budget question. It’s also reflective of the uncertainty around the best course of action being recommended to administrators, which seems to change from week to week. When schools closed in the spring, it was largely thought that kids did not readily transmit the coronavirus. But by mid-summer, as schools and teachers unions were coming to terms on back-to-school plans, rising community spread and outbreaks tied to childcare centers raised questions about that theory.
Now, experts are saying that opening schools may not be as risky as many have feared because evidence from the last few weeks shows that the rates of infection inside schools offering in-person classes are far below what is found in the surrounding communities. Data from a new National Covid-19 School Response Data Dashboard found low levels of infection among students and teachers.
Although the dashboard currently includes a very small sample of schools, the new data could ease pressure from teachers unions that have resisted school systems’ efforts to return to classes. Even so, some have observed that the low rates are also partly because a portion of parents in communities most affected by the coronavirus are less willing to send their children back to school.
The new data—if it holds—could guide schools as they evaluate how to use their resources. Schools have largely used federal coronavirus funding not on staff but on the supplies and materials for them to disinfect buildings and to retrofit buildings to allow greater social distancing in schools. When it comes to longer-lasting expenses, that’s largely been on major investments in technology like laptops and other equipment to accommodate remote learning.
“Probably the most disappointing thing for kids after all of this,” noted Hime, “ is now there will never be another snow day
Liz Farmer is a journalist and fiscal policy expert who often writes about budgets, fiscal distress, and tax policy. She is currently a research fellow at the Rockefeller Institute’s Future of Labor Research Center.