Districts in states with tight restrictions around remote learning are finding themselves unable to pivot to online instruction amid another surge of COVID-19 infections and school shutdowns.
Instead, some schools facing staffing shortages or high absence rates from the spread of the omicron variant are relying on inclement weather or emergency days to close schools altogether. These days in some cases must be made up at the end of the school year or, in worst-case scenarios, by docking spring break days.
That was the situation this past week for Enfield Public Schools in Connecticut, which faced bus driver shortages as employees tested positive for COVID-19 or awaited test results. Superintendent Christopher Drezek said guidance from the state department of education and Gov. Ned Lamont required that his district shut down with no virtual learning options despite the availability of devices for every student from pre-K through grade 12.
“It’s just like a regular old snow day — you tell kids to go sledding and go build a snowman,” Drezek said. “But there was no snow this time.”
A similar story unfolded in Lebanon Special School District in Tennessee, where COVID spread reached an almost 70% positivity rate among employees tested Jan. 4. Cases there were expected to increase to an “insurmountable number,” according to a note to the community.
“Please remember that with the current state guidelines, districts are very limited in choices relating to school closures and/or remote learning,” the note read. “At this time, utilizing the stockpile days for the next three days is the best option we have available.”
As a result, the district closed for three days with no online learning.
‘What's in the better interest of our students?’
Connecticut and Tennessee are among states with widespread staffing and transportation shortages or high positivity rates — and also tight restrictions around remote learning options. Others include New Jersey, Massachussettes and Florida.
In Tennessee, for example, schools facing outbreaks can choose to use their “stockpile” days or may apply for a remote instruction waiver for up to five calendar days “to align with health guidance,” according to Brian Blackley, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday updated its guidance for K-12 schools to shorten isolation and quarantine periods to 5 days for students and staff.
Although 2020 school shutdowns led to a rapid shift to online platforms that many predicted would be here to stay, such policies amid the omicron surge have thrown a wrench into districts’ ability to provide continuity of learning.
“What's in the better interest of our students: leaving them home for a snow day or at least offering them some sort of virtual option while they're home?” asked Drezek, adding that he prefers the latter. The “snow days” being used for staffing shortages will theoretically be made up at the end of the school year.
“But when you're in the midst of an outbreak like we're experiencing here in Connecticut, there's a lot of uncertainty about how long this is going to last,” he said. If Drezek has to prolong closures based on virus spread, he said, he could max out on his “inclement weather” days, be compelled to cancel spring break, and extend the school year until June 30 — the latest he can extend the school year — to reach the 180-day requirement.
Yet even as his schools have struggled to stay open through shortages, he said instruction hasn’t been up to par, with schools offering more study hall periods or needing central office administrators to step in for absent teachers.
Others have raised concerns throughout the pandemic about remote learning not being as accessible for low-income or housing insecure students.
“What else is a district supposed to do at this point when you can't be offering class in-person? The best we can do is offer them remote [instruction],” said Robert McCann, executive director of the K-12 Alliance of Michigan, an organization that advocates for equitable education policies and practices. “And there's no question we want kids in class. We all agree that's where they learn best.”
McCann said some districts in his state are operating remotely under the assumption the state will later retroactively provide more flexibility for students to learn from home.
For Drezek, shortages and closures are “touch and go.”
“All hands are on deck,” he said. “I don't know what tomorrow's gonna bring, but it doesn't look promising.”