As COVID-19 cases increase in Wisconsin, many urban and rural school districts face staff shortages as they strive to maintain in-person learning throughout the year.
Just days after returning from winter vacation, the Green Bay area public school district said there was a significant increase in the number of out-of-school employees due to the coronavirus.
“We had over 500 staff members in total – in fact more than that – each of the first three days of the year,” said Stephen Murley, GBAPS Superintendent. “So it’s not only difficult to teach in the classroom, but also to serve lunch, clean schools, answer the phone and everything that goes with it. It just exceeds the capacity of the replacement staff that it is. we have in the district. “
This critical staff shortage has caused the district to move students and staff at Chappell Elementary School to virtual learning until January 10.
Murley said 30% of certified teachers are absent in some buildings. The district has moved teachers who do not typically teach in the classroom to temporary supply positions.
“We have virtually emptied our district office building of anyone with certification,” said Murley. “School social workers, counselors, maybe even art, music and physical education teachers are in regular classrooms teaching children. “
Murley and Eric Vanden Heuvel, chairman of the GBAPS Board of Education, said the goal was to keep children in the classroom.
“We’re just going to continue to look at this issue,” said Vanden Heuvel. “That’s where we’re at right now. I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon, and we’ll have to keep getting creative and thinking about what other solutions we might have.”
The district as a whole will not switch to virtual learning. The change would take place building by building. Families and staff would be notified before 9 p.m. via email, automated phone call and text.
Meanwhile, some rural school districts are facing similar challenges.
Corey Baumgartner, principal of Brillion public schools, said they were seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases among students and staff. District data as of January 3 shows there are 16 students with active COVID-19 cases and one staff member with a positive case. The dashboard will be updated on Thursday.
“They’re at the highest levels we’ve seen to date, but we’re at a point right now that hasn’t created this type of situation that would force us to close classrooms,” Baumgartner said.
The spike in cases highlights a long-standing need for substitute teachers in rural schools.
“We also had our substitute administrators in the classrooms because it is well known that there is a shortage of substitute teachers statewide,” Baumgartner said. “I might even have to do it tomorrow just as needed. “
Baumgartner said every district and building has its limits when it comes to the amount of staff needed to operate, but said Brillion’s public schools have yet to reach it.
“We want children in our buildings. We see that this is the optimal learning environment and we want to do everything possible to make sure that is provided to them,” Baumgartner said.
Kim Kaukl, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, said understaffing was an issue in other rural Wisconsin school districts. He said many schools are made up of one-person departments, which makes it difficult if someone gets sick.
“Especially in rural communities, if you have a science teacher who needs to go out into quarantine, it’s really hard to find someone to fill that position because there is such a shortage of submarines,” Kaukl said.
Throughout the pandemic, Kaukl said many rural school districts have stayed mostly in person and found innovative ways to sustain face-to-face learning, in part because virtual connection can be a major challenge.
“We have broadband connectivity in most of our schools. It’s really good. But when the kids come home, it’s really hard. They just don’t have the connectivity or the access,” Kaukl said. “They provided access points for the kids, and just because of the geography of where we live with the hills and valleys, we just couldn’t get connectivity.”
Kaukl said each district needs to weigh what’s best for its students and staff to complete the school year.
“I just hope families understand that things are in place to make sure their children are safe and staff are safe so that we can continue face to face,” Kaukl said. “Not everyone may agree with what we are doing, but following these guidelines because we have been successful with them.”