Teacher shortages force school districts to go virtual

With just days to go, it’s a race to the starting line for school districts getting ready to reopen. But a race can’t start without runners, and many districts are finding they have teachers and staff not willing to come back to the classroom.

“We surveyed all the staff in July. Less than 3% said they were not coming back. The union yesterday, less than two days before the opening of school, after being asked for several months, said, reluctantly, do a hybrid,” said Lakewood School District attorney Michael Inzelbuch.

In Lakewood, the teachers union is pushing back against the Board of Education’s plan to reopen full time on Friday, Sept. 4. Two teachers resigned due to COVID-19, one saying, “The schools are crowded. The rooms are small. There are very little precautions in place. It is inevitable that not only teachers but also students’ family members will get sick.”

As of now there are 37 teachers who won’t return to the classroom, putting a strain on a district that’s already struggling with large class sizes and not enough space.

“We’ve been pushing back all summer. Even from the very beginning, the association has had very little input into any of the district’s plans. Also, because their class sizes are already so big to begin with, I can’t imagine that they could make them any larger. The governor’s rules where a building has to be at 25% capacity, or no more than 25 people, and we are already well past that number,” said Dawn Hiltner, a spokesperson for the Lakewood Education Association.

“We acknowledge, we are transparent, there is not 6 feet between each desk. We can’t. We don’t have, we are practical. But look what we have here. This, by the fire marshal, it’s called polycarbonate; it’s more flexible. But we are trying to mitigate every way possible any effects of COVID,” said Inzelbuch.

The state and local Department of Health approved Lakewood’s plan.

“On paper, it checks the boxes. But in reality we don’t feel that it’s, when you really get down to the day to day, that it’s a workable plan that will keep people safe,” Hiltner said.

Lakewood’s not alone. Districts across the state are adjusting their plans with only days to go.

In Toms River, staffing shortages include substitute shortages, which for many districts was a problem even before COVID-19.

“The cost of substitutes for a district like Toms River is a problem, along with the other costs that have to be taken, so we’ve got a really a compound problem. I can’t find them, and I don’t have the money to pay for them necessarily because of all the demands that COVID-19 has placed on schools,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

The Department of Education just released guidance for all-remote plans in the last few days. One hundred and eighty districts have requested that so far. But Bozza says more clarity is needed on how staffing shortages will impact remote plans.

“We need the governor to recognize in his executive order that not having sufficient staff is a reason not to open in-person instruction. We are hearing, as I said, as this problem grows, as more people say they are unable to work and more schools have to consider closing and remaining in a virtual situation until such time as they can meet all of those safety concerns, that the reason for staffing alone is not necessarily being accepted, and it should be,” he said.

It’ll be an uphill climb for Lakewood with only three days to iron out its plan with the union.

“If things went the way that they should, we would maybe be able to put off the start of school for another week or two until we could work out some of the last minute kinks or be able to really truly discuss a hybrid plan in earnest,” Hiltner said.

But the board’s promising legal action against any teachers who don’t show.

“Should they not return to work on Tuesday, they will be in front of a court as soon as the court hears them,” said Inzelbuch.

It’s hardly the start anyone wants.