The school year is about to begin, and school task forces are being set up to create plans on how to safely reopen following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Having space for adequate social distancing will be a key obstacle to work around. Read more on the difficulties for social distancing in schools. In order to adequately comply with the guidelines, many schools will find that more teaching staff is required. But obtaining the extra qualified teaching staff needed in this economic climate may prove challenging. Substitute teachers will also be in short supply. As the schools enter the next academic year, teaching staff shortages will likely hamper efforts to safely reopen schools.
Before Covid-19, the demand for credentialed teachers exceeded the supply. Districts filled gaps by employing teachers who were not fully credentialed or who did not have education in the field they were teaching. This was particularly evident with subjects like physics and chemistry in which less than half of the educators had degrees in the subjects.
The pandemic has worsened the situation. Massive budget shortfalls in state and local governments have resulted in furloughed teachers, removal of vacancies, and hundreds of thousands of laid off educators. Many younger and non-tenured teachers are losing their jobs. Conversely, senior teachers may not want to return due to health risks. These losses are all happening at a time when more teachers will probably be needed.
Space will be the challenge
The problem comes down to space. Students just don’t have enough space to create enough social distance. Classrooms were simply not designed for social distancing. As an example, New Hampshire requires 32 square feet per person for high school students. The New York Department of Health requires 22 to 23 square feet per student in a basic classroom.
However, CDC guidelines state that student desks should be six feet apart, if feasible, which would mean approximately 185 square feet of space is needed per pupil based upon the area encompassed by a six-foot radius around a single desk. Ventilation will also be an issue in keeping children and staff safe from the virus. Read more about how poor ventilation can cause a super-spreader event. To adequately follow CDC guidelines, the schools have to spread out the students considerably to give them more space.
There are ways that schools can navigate the spacing obstacle, but they all essentially come down to spreading the students out into smaller groups. One method would be for the school to follow a hybrid schedule in which on certain days some of the grades would learn at school and the other grades would learn remotely at home, and then the grades would switch places on the other days.
Another method would be for the school to follow a split schedule in which some grades would learn in the morning and others would learn in the afternoon. By moving to these schedules, schools would be able to spread out one class into more than one classroom, thus providing more social distancing.
Small classes will result in teaching staff shortages
In order to follow either a hybrid schedule or a split schedule, extra teachers would be needed. A class of 30 students split into two classrooms would now require two teachers rather than one. Therein lies the problem. With teaching staff shortages, the extra teachers will likely not be found. Practically speaking, school districts will not be able to fund the hiring of extra teachers unless a massive infusion of money comes into district budgets at a time when budgets are being cut. Logistically, this means that the best ways to ensure social distancing would no longer be feasible.
Without extra teaching staff on hand, school districts will need to find other staff to manage the students. School districts will attempt to find substitute teachers to fill the gaps. However, getting enough substitute teachers may be very challenging.
Reopening schools in a pandemic means that teachers are going to take sick leave and possibly a lot of it. The CDC asks people with Covid-19 symptoms to stay home for at least 10 days; people who have been exposed to Covid-19 to stay home for 14 days; and if a person is staying in close contact with someone who has Covid-19, this would be expanded to 24 days.
One teacher could be exposed multiple times over the course of a year, which could potentially equate to months of sick leave. For those who do get sick, stories of people suffering from debilitating symptoms for months are common. Ultimately, the extended suffering could also require months of sick leave. Qualified substitute teachers are going to be in high demand.
The supply is not going to meet that demand. Despite the nation’s high unemployment rates, districts cannot expect there to be a rush to fill these positions. Substitute teachers often get paid barely over minimum wage. Add in the risk of catching Covid-19, having health insurance will likely be a priority for substitute teachers. But many districts will be loath to supply it because of their budget cuts.
Additional teaching requirements will make it harder to find qualified teachers
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average annual premium cost for employer-sponsored single-coverage health insurance was $7,188 in 2019, which is saved money if the employer doesn’t have to dish it out. The Affordable Care Act does not require employers to support employees with health insurance if they work less than thirty hours a week, so there is impetus to keep substitute teachers on part-time, but this will not incentivize substitute teachers to stay with a district. Ultimately, without adequate safety measures at schools and sufficient health insurance, many substitute teachers may opt out of taking the jobs.
Substitute teachers will also have to be prepared to teach online in a hybrid schedule or teach entirely remotely. Online teaching takes considerably more time to prepare than normal class teaching. During a regular school year, substitute teachers could give out handouts and show videos; however, supervising online requires additional skills with technology. Some teachers have even noted they feel like they have to be IT personnel while, frankly, they have not had the training for it. Expecting substitutes to manage remote learning is unrealistic.
The incentives for becoming a substitute teacher are few while the demands on substitute teachers are high. These facts paint a gloomy picture of the future. Many districts across the nation are already fighting to find people to fill the positions. There just won’t be enough substitutes to fill in for the teachers missing. If districts expect substitute teachers to help teach the split classes as well, it just won’t be happening.
Ultimately, the idea that schools will safely reopen without having extra teaching staff is foolhardy. The idea behind social distancing is to create more space, and that means more classes. More classes require more teachers or more substitutes, one or the other. Both will be in short supply. Schools will not be able to overcome to challenge of teaching staff shortages to safely reopen.
Read more on how Covid-19 is impacting schools with poor ventilation potentially causing super-spreader events, bus driver shortages, and social distancing difficulties.