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Teacher absences are rising with the COVID-19 wave

Teacher absences are rising with the COVID-19 wave

The latest wave of COVID-19 has mainly hit schools, leaving districts struggling to staff classrooms.

In Illinois, several school districts have switched to some form of distance learning after the winter break, including Belleville Township High School, Collinsville, Edwardsville and East St. Louis. But on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, only a handful of schools have switched to online learning so far.

In part, that’s because of a rule that limits schools in Missouri to 36 hours of virtual instruction. An emergency provision in the 2020-21 school year allowed schools to make more use of distance learning, but that was withdrawn in July.

In the Normandy Schools Collaborative, leaders are calling for more flexibility in the 36-hour limit as they deal with what they believe to be serious staffing issues. While some schools have had to go remote, the district has kept others open despite about a third of the staff being absent, said Phil Pusateri, associate superintendent and CFO in the district.

“We’re looking at some other states where they have the freedom to go to remote areas without these restrictions, and I have to say, I think it would be a lot better for our staff and our students if we had that freedom,” Pusateri said.

A school in Normandy reached the limit for AMI instruction on Thursday, with several others following closely behind. Schools that have used all 36 hours may have to cancel classes and make up for days at the end of the school year, Pusateri said.

The time limit for virtual instruction was discussed earlier this week at the Missouri Board of Education meeting. During a presentation on COVID-19, Mallory McGowin, Chief Communications Officer of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said schools face major challenges in having enough staff for personal learning and that “it’s important to relaunch this conversation.” view” over the 36-hour limit.

“We still don’t see widespread problems with that, but it’s getting really close at times,” McGowin said. “Every day we see that schools barely have enough staff to personally serve those schools and open them safely, so this is a great source of conversation.”

State education leaders have taken no action against the rule.

Personal advantage

There’s more than just the 36-hour limit at play, said Paul Ziegler, CEO of EdPlus, a cooperative of about 60 public and charter school systems.

“We know a lot of our kids struggled in that virtual environment,” Ziegler said. “It’s also, from our pediatrician and people with infectious diseases, it’s not the best place for kids, so if we can keep the doors open I think that’s top priority.”

In the Rockwood School District, students and staff almost 400 more cases of COVID-19 in the past three weeks than the total number of cases from August to December, Interim Superintendent Tim Ricker said.

“This has put a lot of pressure on our organization,” Ricker said. “I mean, it’s just, it’s very, very, very hard, and what’s good for one district may not be good for all districts.”

Administrators have replaced sick staff and Ricker said the pandemic has stretched resources, but there are no plans to make the district virtual.

“We want kids to go to school five days a week with personalized education,” he said. “We think this is best from a safety, health and, just as importantly, an educational standpoint.”

In the Parkway School District, nearly 20% of teachers were absent from work last week, according to a letter to the parents. The district inspector warned that staff absences could cause a temporary shift to distance learning.

“We recognize the significant impact of these decisions, so we are doing everything we can to avoid any closures,” said Chief Inspector Keith Marty.

St. Louis Public Schools had to shift two elementary schools to virtual learning for a few days last week. And in the Clayton School District, teacher absences are about twice the normal rate.

Back in Normandy, school leaders look for solutions. To avoid having to make up for days in June, they’re considering acquiring a platform that allows students to learn online, in school, without the supervision of a certified teacher.

Pusateri is still hoping for a change in the time limit for virtual learning.

“We really hope the state-level decision-makers reconsider those 36 hours,” Pusateri said. “Extending beyond 36 hours would give us the flexibility and give districts across the state the flexibility to determine at the local level what’s best for their school that day if a large number of teachers are absent.”

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