It's 'all hands on deck' for short-staffed school districts
New London — New London School Superintendent Cynthia Ritchie was serving a dual role this week, managing the school district while acting as an elementary school principal.
It’s part of what Ritchie called the district’s “all-hands-on-deck” approach to cover staff vacancies and keep the schools open during the latest COVID-19 surge. Coming out of the holiday break, many districts across the region are similarly coping with a shortage of teachers, substitutes and bus drivers.
“Like every other district, yes, we are facing staffing challenges each day this week so far,” Waterford Superintendent Thomas Giard III said. “Due to some creativity ... shuffling people around by our outstanding principals, we’ve been able to stay open so far. It is a challenge.”
The staffing shortage led to a decision in Stonington to cancel school for students on Monday and Tuesday. In a message to families and staff, the district announced, "the dramatic increase of COVID-19 cases within our district has resulted in a significant shortage of transportation drivers, staff, classroom teachers and substitute teachers."
Tuesday became a professional development day for staff.
Students did return to class on Wednesday, but on Tuesday night parents were notified that in order to keep the schools open for in-person learning, the district had to reconfigure bus stops. First Student, the company that provides school bus service in Stonington, assigned new stops and times for pickup and drop-off to children, and the school district said stops would be in close proximity to the normal stops. The district said that once the optimal number of drivers return from quarantine, the normal bus routes will be resumed.
The district said this was the only feasible option because, given the "critical shortage of drivers," it was not possible to continue transporting students on the bus normal routes. Parents were encouraged to drive their children to school for the rest of the week.
Stonington Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said school principals were able to cover all classrooms with substitutes Wednesday by utilizing staff specialists and counselors. He added that the number of bus drivers and school staff who must quarantine varies and changes hourly. He said the plan is to continue with the new bus schedule Thursday and Friday.
In New London, the Central Office has been mostly empty during the pandemic, as administrators are asked to take on new assignments at the district’s various schools. Everyone from guidance counselors to magnet school directors are being asked to lend a hand to either teach or serve in a support role.
“We’re shifting resources around. We’re all doing our part to keep things afloat,” Ritchie said. “We’re looking at the big picture and putting people in places where they are needed. We’ve repurposed staff from their typical positions to help support in-classroom instruction based on certification. A lot of staff has been doing work they don’t typically do but are certified to do. Everyone’s pulling together.”
The staffing shortage came to a head Wednesday at New London High School, where 28 positions remained vacant, a mix of missing teachers and support staff. Seven of the absences were directly related to COVID-19. There was also call-outs, people in quarantine, others out on family leave or some who previously had scheduled days off.
The high school opened with a two-hour delay to allow district staff time to determine their roles and cover the classes with missing educators, Ritchie said. All but two of the COVID-19 positive cases were carry-over from the holiday break.
“It’s been a challenge all year, and it continues to be a challenge,” Ritchie said.
Positive cases in the Groton Public Schools also continued to climb this week, including 25 staff members at Fitch High School, Groton Superintendent Susan Austin said. She said the cases have not yet delayed school opening times or caused any school closures but added that “it has been challenging — all hands on deck!”
Norwich schools reported on Monday that the district had 16 staff members out due to COVID-19. Administrators were helping to staff offices and lunchrooms and principals substituted as teachers in some schools.
Ritchie spoke to The Day on Wednesday after joining the effort to hand out some of the 2,100 COVID-19 self-test kits obtained from the state. The kits were distributed on Wednesday to families prior to a four-day break. The district has Thursday and Friday off for celebration of Three Kings Day.
Ritchie said she is hoping families continue to make educated decisions and keep their children home if they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms or test positive. She continues to advocate for vaccines and quarantine when a home test turns up positive results. There’s no mandate to report results of at-home tests, but schools ask that people report positive cases to the school district so it can take appropriate action and report the case to Ledge Light Health District.
Districts have incentive to remain open considering new state rules that now dictate that remote learning days do not count toward the 180 days of classroom instruction mandated by the state. Remote learning days will need to be made up later in the year.
“We stay open because we want to do everything we can to keep some normalcy for the kids,” Ritchie said. “If we have to do it (close schools) it will be as a last resort and after we’ve exhausted all other options.”
New London Board of Education President Elaine Maynard-Adams said she is also supportive of doing everything possible to keep children in school.
”We have seen the effects of a year of remote schooling," she said, "and I believe it will take us years to recover from that.”
This recent surge, she said, has taught schools to be prepared with a robust remote program for students who need it, and instructors should be given ample professional development opportunities. “A properly designed, managed and evaluated program has a valuable place in education today," she said, "but it will take time and talent to build that kind of a program.”
Maynard-Adams said the second surge indicates to her that districts should rethink the school calendar during the holidays and perhaps provide a longer break instead of the “hodgepodge mess of shortened weeks.”
Ritchie said contact tracing, which is still being performed at the schools, continues to show that transmission of the coronavirus in the schools is not the problem.
“Our challenges are dealing with the effects of family and community transmission where staff need to be out either because they are sick or they are caring for someone who is,” she said.
Day Staff Writers Kimberly Drelich, Johana Vazquez, Claire Bessette and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.