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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Told you so
Fri, 11/13/2020 - 2:44pm

Fools should have never opened.

Bryan G.
Sat, 11/14/2020 - 11:07am

Some school districts, like Southfield for example, have been virtual/remote the whole year. I'm honestly surprised that any district, besides maybe very small rural ones, have tried to do in person. It never seemed safe to me.

Sat, 11/14/2020 - 11:52am

School leaders are supposed to be leaders. Sometimes that means you have to ignore the idiots no matter how loud they are.

While the idiots said all summer that kids don’t get COVID nor spread it the rest of us listened to the scientific experts who learned kids do get it and spread it. Many of the idiots were told they would continue to work from home until well into 2021 yet they demanded their kids go to school, rejecting the advice of the experts. The idiots simply can’t accept the facts about COVID spread and the vulnerability of all who attend and work in the schools. Their arrogance is matched by their ignorance.

Schools reopened knowing these problems would arise even though they could have remained virtual to reduce the spread. And here we are.

Robert E Balwinski
Sat, 11/14/2020 - 12:07pm

Although I am a retired Mathematics Teacher and still certified and "highly qualified," per federal law, I am NOT coming back to substitute. At this age, my health, not your child, is my highest priority. Sorry!

Math Sux
Sat, 11/14/2020 - 5:50pm

Perhaps substitute pay should rise slightly. A few years ago I subbed, and enjoyed it, but I was there to fill a need and give back a bit. It wasn't for the money. However, I don't think people will continue to sub for $55.00-$75.00 /day, particularly in light of the perceived risk.

Jennifer G
Sat, 11/14/2020 - 6:09pm

Most of the covid cases and quarantined people in schools are teachers. They aren't getting it from students, they are getting it from family and friends and then being irresponsible and gathering with other staff members either at school or away. Several districts statewide have several teachers out due to quarantine protocols because teachers in their own buildings won't follow guidelines. Now is the time for this group of people to step up and go above and beyond to social distance, wear masks, and don't go out in groups so in person learning can continue. They control the way this will play out, not the students. But they have no incentive to. Pay will continue, they just teach from home an hour or 2 a day (more at 6-12. K-5 teachers are logging as many or more hours than they normally do) and claim how unsafe it is when they are the ones being unsafe!

Sun, 11/15/2020 - 11:41pm

I am a special education teacher and I will tell you right now that my measly salary was not worth the work that I put in to this job BEFORE a deadly pandemic hit. It makes me SICK that places of business and industry closed down to install new ventilation systems, social distancing protocols, plexiglass, hand sanitizing stations, temperature screenings, etc. before reopening to allow their employees to come back BUT NOT SCHOOLS. Teachers are expected to be in a classroom with 32 kids in it full- time with minimal safety precautions, no social distancing, and ancient ventilation systems. Many classrooms do not have windows or enough room to spread the kids out. Now we have to spend our preparation period to sub in classrooms where other teachers are absent due to being sick or quarantined. You actually have the nerve to say WE NEED TO STEP UP???!!! Teachers are literally risking their lives to educate these children. And working remotely is, believe it or not, MORE TIME CONSUMING than being in the classroom!!! Listen, in special education we always refer to FAPE, Free and Appropriate Public Education. Teaching the children remotely is FREE and it
is APPROPRIATE during this pandemic. There's nothing in the law stating FREE CHILD CARE. It's time for the PARENTS and COMMUNITIES to step up for the children because soon we're not going to have any teachers left!!!!

Mon, 11/16/2020 - 5:39am

Wow just wow!
This may be the most creative ‘it’s the teachers’ fault’ post I’ve seen to date.

Barbara Hill
Sun, 11/15/2020 - 8:28am

We have flattened the curve of deaths ( very few a day for over 10 million residents) and still the controlling propaganda from leaders and the main stream media reign for day after day, now 8 months later. Most
cases have a 98% chance of survival. Cases can also mean testing positive with no symptoms. God help us when the typical flu season arrives. The political solutions are worse, months later. Let fear and control reign! When you mention the true science why face diapers are a false protection, you are censored. The helpless kids in the school systems and the elderly trapped in nursing homes are reaping the consequences of the political control!

Sun, 11/15/2020 - 5:56pm

You need to listen to docs, nurses, and health care administrators right now. You may learn something as hospitals are filling up, fatalities are going up, and it is all over the country. An epidemiologist or two might enlighten you as well.

Sun, 11/15/2020 - 9:41am

I think you are missing the fact that our young students are often asymptomatic. They could very well be a huge contributing factor, albeit unknowingly. It appears that teachers are contracting the virus outside of school, but that may not be the case. As a teacher, I have experienced this. Yes, numbers for student cases may be low, but research shows the virus manifests differently in children and oftentimes is undetectable or passed off as a cold or runny nose. That in and of itself makes this even harder.

Mon, 11/16/2020 - 1:00pm

I totally agree with you. The parents fought so hard for children to go back to school in the community that I live in. I believe the powers at be have deemed schools being open as an essential element to a functioning society so that parents can work and have free child care. They're not even testing kids for covid in the area that I live in unless parents insist. I believe if they were being truthful, children are the super spreaders but don't show the symptoms. Some countries have research to show this is true but if people are not listening to our own scientists in America, we certainly aren't going to take another country's research into consideration. PRAY FOR OUR TEACHERS!!! I fear this is the collapse of the public school system. Shut it down now and reserve the last of quality, experienced, intelligent educators!