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Wave of Teacher Time Off Forces Districts Short on Subs to Cancel School

By Asher Lehrer-Small | November 10, 2021

Teachers on leave around the holidays forced Seattle, WA and Montgomery County, MD to cancel school due to lack of staff. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

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With schools across the country short on substitute teachers, staff taking additional days off around the holidays are forcing some districts to cancel classes.

Seattle Public Schools announced that its 52,000 students would have no school Friday due to large shares of staff making Veterans Day into a four-day weekend. And in Montgomery County, Maryland, the Board of Education voted this week to make a scheduled half-day before Thanksgiving a vacation day for the district’s 165,000 students because there are too few subs to fill in for the large number of educators taking time off before the break.

In an even more extreme case, Newaygo Public Schools in West Michigan made a last-minute call to shutter their doors from Nov. 9 to Nov. 15 due to high shares of staff out for COVID-19, other illnesses or for personal reasons, the district announced Monday.

“We are unable to sufficiently staff our buildings to meet the needs of our students. Sub shortages are not unique to NPS, and this is a challenge we, as well as many other districts are facing,” the district wrote in a Nov. 9 unsigned letter to families.

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In Seattle, more than 600 educators requested substitute teachers for the day after Veterans Day, the district said.

“We are aware of a larger than normal number of [Seattle Public School] staff taking leave on Friday, and do not believe we have adequate personnel to open schools,” the district explained in an email sent to parents on Tuesday, just three days before the shutdown. 

In Montgomery County, the sudden change to the Thanksgiving holiday prompted outrage from some parents.

“To give families 13 days of notice … have you no consideration for parents in health care, parents who are essential workers, parents who basically count on the school schedule that you publish?” parent Dr. Jennifer Reesman told a local news station. “You basically told us all that you don’t care about us.”

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The closures further compound the disruptions that schools have weathered over the past 20 months of the pandemic — exacerbating academic, social and emotional challenges for many students.

“Now is the time to double down and hopefully get students even more access to even more great instruction, not less,” Tequilla Brownie, executive vice president of The New Teacher Project, told The 74.

With dwindling substitute teacher reserves in many school systems nationwide, Daniel Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said there’s little district leaders can do when educators request leave around the holidays.

“These are days that teachers can take,” he told The 74, explaining that the right to use paid time off, known as PTO, is stipulated in many educator contracts. “Ordinarily, school districts would rely on substitutes to cover for teachers. The problem is, you can’t find substitutes.”

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Closures are “not what superintendents want,” the AASA leader continued. “They want to get the kids back to school … They’re doing everything that they can with the resources that they have to mitigate the situation.” 

The pandemic, however, has shown that school systems can get creative, Brownie pointed out. Some districts tapped central office staff to help out with remote learning. She wonders whether it could have been possible to replicate those solutions to avoid school closures this time around.

“The most dismal option is to shutter the doors,” said the education equity expert.

In Montgomery County, the scheduling change comes on the heels of weeks of educator frustration and burnout. Two weeks ago, teachers held a car rally to protest staffing shortages that, they said, were exhausting and stressing out employees. Signs taped in vehicle windows lamented “skeleton crews” and educators “drowning” in their workload, The Washington Post reported.

During a press conference Tuesday, union President Jennifer Martin warned of a “great resignation” in Maryland’s largest district if Montgomery County does not improve conditions for its teachers. The school system currently has hundreds of staff vacancies, including 161 teaching positions, according to local reporting.

“We hope you are able to take some time to rest and recharge during the extended Thanksgiving Break,” said a Nov. 9 announcement to families and teachers signed Montgomery County Public Schools.

Many school systems across the country have tried to preempt such situations by scheduling extra time for staff and students to recharge. Over a dozen districts — including Alexandria, Virginia and Howard County, Maryland — recently announced days off or shortened schedules to fight burnout and provide mental health breaks for educators, according to a recent report from Burbio, a data service that has tracked school calendars through the pandemic. 

District announcements generally did not mention substitute teacher shortages, though it’s possible the desire to avoid needing more coverage for teachers than they could supply also played into the calculus for some school administrators.

Policy varies on whether the days off will have to be made up later in the school year. Most states require that schools be in session 180 days a year. A local news outlet reported that Montgomery County’s 2021-22 school calendar had 182 days built in so the additional day off would not affect it. The Newaygo Public Schools used up five of its snow days in the current closure, reported Michigan Live.

The disruptions, planned and unplanned, are yet another byproduct of the pandemic, said Domenech. He’s hopeful that newly authorized vaccines for younger children will help make the situation more normal by the spring. 

But in the meantime, he acknowledged that the scheduling changes may frustrate many families.

“Working parents very much are dependent on [having their children in school],” he said.

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