COVID-related staffing shortages are forcing schools to play musical chairs across CT

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Trainee teachers at Fairfield are ready to help schools run smoothly, while an elementary principal at Guilford has recently been appointed as an art teacher. Stamford teachers waived scheduled breaks in the school day to replace absent staff.

The staffing shortages that have closed classrooms, schools and entire school districts are also pushing educators still attending in person to their limits.

School staff who managed to avoid quarantine have been enlisted in recent weeks to cover the classrooms of their colleagues with COVID-19 or those exposed to a positive case.

These additional responsibilities come as state data through Wednesday showed 2,467 employees and 12,740 students across Connecticut reported new COVID-19 infections in the past week. The preliminary tally suggested cases among teachers and staff were down from the previous week – but a sevenfold increase since the start of December.

“It really hasn’t been easy,” said Diane Phanos, president of the Stamford teachers’ union. “Those who continue to work pay the price and rise to the occasion, but it obviously adds a lot of stress to their working day.”

State leaders have repeatedly stressed that students learn better and fare better mentally in person, and for this reason have pushed to keep school buildings open as COVID-19 infections hit record highs. . But despite these efforts, the reality of a health crisis has forced classrooms to close as new cases and staff shortages have rendered them non-operational since the winter break.

Norwich and Waterbury state schools were among those to close this week, after Stratford, Westport, Ansonia and Danbury halted teaching last week due to teacher absences. Elsewhere, individual schools have temporarily closed or teachers have taken over the responsibilities of their absent colleagues.

Phanos said many Stamford teachers used their free time or lunch with students to cover for other absent teachers and staff. “That means they would work all day, no breaks,” she said..

School district staffing shortages prior to the surge but has worsened in recent weeks for pandemic-related reasons. In some cases, a group of teachers had to divide the class of absent teachers and add some of those students to their usual class size. Teachers are paid extra for the extra work — “but it’s minimal,” Phanos said.

In Fairfield, middle school teachers have had to cover for each other, but in high schools some substitutes have come in regularly and each school has three interns who can fill in, according to the local teachers’ union. More than 40 staff members reported active cases of COVID-19 on Friday, according to district data.

“So between substitutes, interns, and co-workers teaching for each other, we’ve been able to keep everything as normal as possible for students,” said Bob Smoler, president of the Fairfield Education Association.

The union added that the reduction in quarantine time from 10 to 5 days for non-symptomatic teachers has helped to retain staff at schools, while last year teachers recalled many times when lessons were combined due to staff absences.

“None of this is ideal,” Smoler said. “It’s certainly exhausting teachers, but we’re very committed to keeping schools open and maintaining a sense of normalcy for students.”

Mike Cummings, the superintendent of Fairfield, observed that teachers went “over and above” to make a precarious situation work.

“Our teachers work hard to cover their colleagues’ lessons,” Cummings said. “The administrators spend a lot of time organizing this coverage.”

He said even administrators and paraeducators are covering classes. “It’s great teamwork from the students,” he said.

In Guilford, schools that have faced staffing shortages and struggles to find year-round substitute teachers have faced new challenges since the omicron surge. Superintendent Paul Freeman said the past two weeks have been “particularly difficult” as more staff have called in sick but haven’t come to the point of closing a school or the district.

“Teachers step in and, where possible, they help by covering other people’s classrooms,” he said. “What we would normally do is you could combine classrooms. We won’t do that anymore, because of the realities of the pandemic, but we are stretching the people we have and getting creative. »

Administrators and district officials have also mobilized. An elementary school principal taught art in his building one day, Freeman said, and the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction covered a building for a few days when an administrator was away.

“We move people everywhere,” he said.

In Danbury, delays and school closures due to staffing shortages and weather conditions have meant the district has had just over a week of school since the winter break.

Last week, 296 staff members were absent on January 3 and 322 employees were absent on January 4, according to district data. Staff absences were down in the second week after the break, but educators were still being drawn into different roles while some persisted.

“Roughly there has been at least one person in every grade level in my building who has had COVID in the past two weeks,” said Erin Daly, a third-grade teacher at Pembroke Elementary School. State data showed there were 20 new cases at the school from last week through Wednesday.

“So what that means for a teacher is, we have to pick up the slack for those who are sick and make sure their lesson plans are done, make sure their materials are ready, make sure their class is set up in the morning for whoever is going to replace, ”said Daly, also president of the local teachers’ union.

Some classes had to be combined and meet in the gymnasium or media center, preventing those spaces from being used as intended. Meanwhile, teachers across the state have called for a ban on combined classes due to shortages, which are overwhelming teaching and increasing the likelihood of a positive COVID case in the room.

The situation in the Naugatuck Valley has also started to turn around since schools had to close after winter break. After it is estimated that a quarter of staff were absent on the first day back, canceling classes for the week, schools in Ansonia tried a second time to reopen on Monday with more success.

“Touch wood, we look really good,” said Joseph DiBacco, the superintendent of schools. “We have the staff to teach and the few absences are covered by the staff.”

“My teachers and staff did a really good job during our school closure, and our COVID rate dropped significantly,” he said.

As of midweek in Derby, the school district had 20 staff absent due to COVID-19, five of whom were teachers, according to district data. The others were mainly paraeducators, building substitutes, secretaries and trainees.

“Other members of our amazing staff are covering the classes,” said Matthew Conway, the superintendent.

In Bridgeport, vacancies for teachers already plagued his schools, but the highly transmissible omicron variant did not help their staffing problems.

“Bridgeport has always had shortages,” said Ana Batista, president of the local teachers’ union. “But that makes it even more difficult.”

Due to planned vacations and weather-related closures after the winter break, this week was Bridgeport’s first full week back in classrooms – buying them time for face masks. high-quality and COVID-19 test kits arrive, and the state to implement additional measures.

Lamont also signed an executive order on Tuesday that gives districts greater flexibility to hire retired teachers during the recent spike in COVID-19. Batista called the move “helpful” but worried about underlying issues at Bridgeport, especially as many educators left during the pandemic.

“I wouldn’t change for a minute what I did teaching at Bridgeport,” Batista said. “But we really have to do our best to get people into this field who will enjoy it and be successful.”

Writers Sarah Kyrcz, Josh LaBella, Eddy Martinez and Julia Perkins contributed to this report.

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