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With teachers out from COVID, Michigan schools can’t keep classes open

On Monday, tiny Comstock Public Schools in Kalamazoo County had 26 teachers absent. The vast majority had either tested positive for COVID-19 or were in quarantine because of contact with someone who was infected.

The district could find only three substitute teachers.

Within hours, the district made the decision to close its school buildings and return to fully remote learning, even though only one of the district’s 1,700 students has tested positive.

Comstock’s experience, which is being replicated around the state, is a sobering example of the growing difficulty of keeping Michigan’s schools open even while the number of coronavirus cases among students remains low.

Some Michigan school districts are struggling to keep classrooms open because of a large number of teachers and staff who are quarantined or infected with COVID-19. 

Michigan schools already faced substitute teacher shortages before the pandemic — this fall, the virus has made the situation far graver. 

Troy, in Oakland County, switched back to fully remote learning Monday because it couldn’t find enough substitute teachers to staff classrooms. An average of 60 teachers were unavailable to work last week in the 13,000-student district, either because they had testing positive or were stuck at home for weeks because of exposure to someone with COVID-19.

“The substitute (teacher) pool has been dwindling annually,” Troy Superintendent Richard Machesky told Bridge Michigan. “We’ve been relying on older folks to support those pools, and those are the same folks who don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom now.”

“While the number of student and staff cases within our district is relatively low, we have experienced a recent and substantial increase in absences due to exposure to the virus,” Comstock Supt. Jeffrey Thoenes posted on the district website. 

Thoenes noted “that the pandemic has made it very difficult to attract any substitute teachers. To compensate, principals have been using other teachers and qualified staff to fill in for absent colleagues, but we are at a point as a district where the demand has exceeded the supply. We simply cannot sustain our in-person educational options due to an insufficient number of teachers and staff able to report to work.”

Bloomfield Hills High School in Oakland County went fully remote Nov 4 partly because of the number of teachers in quarantine, according to district spokesperson Shira Good. The district moved the rest of its schools to online learning a week later. Mount Pleasant Public Schools in mid-Michigan closed for one day Monday because of staff shortages, and Midland Public Schools is using the top of its district website to advertise for substitute teachers.

L’Anse Creuse Public Schools in Macomb County is grappling with a similar shortage of substitutes to fill in for quarantined teachers, and Birmingham Public Schools in Oakland County will go virtual on Monday, after warning that pandemic-linked staff shortages were causing some classroom closures. 

“(S)taff capacity remains strained at this time and is anticipated to get worse,”  Birmingham school officials wrote parents Tuesday. Noting the teacher shortages, the district said “the health pandemic has only worsened the situation. BPS has hired a temporary staff member to oversee substitute placements in an effort to head off these staff challenges, but the fact remains that these employees are in exceptionally short supply.”

As Bridge Michigan reported last year, a 2019 survey of Michigan school leaders found that 64 percent of the state’s school districts had classrooms for which they could not find substitute teachers at least “several times a week.”

Troy’s Machesky said the number of available substitutes has dwindled while the number of teachers absent for days or weeks at a time has skyrocketed. “We’re all vying for the same people (to work as substitutes), and they’re just not there,” he said.

Troy has the ability to stream a teacher into classrooms from home while they are in quarantine, Machesky said, but there still has to be a substitute teacher sitting in the classroom with students. Last week, Troy officials decided that continuing in-person classes was untenable because of rising  COVID-19 cases in the community, and staffing problems.

“We just can’t fill classrooms,” Machesky said. “And if you can’t, you’re diminishing the experience of the student.”

L’Anse Creuse Public Schools, in Clinton Township in Macomb County, continues to offer face-to-face instruction along with an option for full-remote learning. Superintendent Erik Edoff told Bridge that finding teachers haunts his district as well. 

Operating during a pandemic “is not just a safety issue, it’s a staffing issue,” Edoff said. “It’s a problem every day.

“There are staff who have been caught up in (the pandemic) either through a contact or an actual case, the majority in events outside of school, and then they can’t be here to work with kids. It’s stressful to our teachers because they’re subbing (for absent colleagues) on their prep periods regularly. It’s a lot of work in an already stressful year.”

Superior Employment Services, based in Troy, is one of several companies in the state that provide substitute teachers for districts. Monalisa Abboushi, director of communications for Superior, said many older substitutes, some of whom are retired teachers, are declining to take assignments in school buildings. 

“They say they are at risk and they don’t want to do in-person” classes, Abboushi said.

Even getting substitute teachers for online classes can be a challenge, because some of the older substitutes don’t have up-to-date computers or high-speed Internet in their homes. “Some of them are not familiar with Zoom so we need to train them,” Abboushi said.

“The schools really count on us,” Abboushi said. “Sometimes it’s difficult, but we work hard to fill every position.”

The K-12 Alliance of Michigan, an education public policy organization, issued a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Wednesday that urged state officials to put teachers, students and school staff at the front of the line for the coronavirus vaccine when it is developed.

“Despite best efforts, it is clear that there is no way to ensure a return to ‘normalcy’ inside our schools until a vaccine is made readily available,” wrote Mark Greathead, superintendent of Woodhaven-Brownstown Schools in Wayne County and president of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan. 

“Prioritizing vaccine distribution for everyone inside our school buildings — teachers, support staff and students — is therefore a critical move that will not only protect their health but the health of our state.”

In Comstock, school buildings will close for at least a week past Thanksgiving to give officials a chance to see if holiday gatherings cause another rash of cases.

“I’ve advocated all year long for face-to-face instruction,” Thoenes, the superintendent, said Thursday. “It’s just been a week since we opened our middle and high schools for face-to-face instruction for the first time. And then the numbers in our county increased. I could see the trajectory was not going to get better.

“I feel a little bit like Sisyphus,” he said, referring to the figure in Greek mythology who spent eternity struggling to get a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom. “Every time you think you have things cleared up, things keep rolling back down the hill again."

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