Detroit school district to switch to remote learning next month -- on Fridays only

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

As a Twitter pal said: Does the virus only work on Fridays?

Hats off to Detroit teachers and staff on this con. If I could use COVID as an excuse with management to swing a series of de facto three-day weekends, I’d be all over it.

The Detroit school district is moving to remote instruction for three Fridays in December in an effort to slow the spread of COVID and give the staff time to deep clean schools.

The move was announced Wednesday on the district’s web site. It comes as the state is leading the nation in new COVID cases.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in that statement that he and the school board made the decision “after listening and reflecting on the concerns of school-based leaders, teachers, support staff, students, and families regarding the need for mental health relief, rising COVID cases, and time to more thoroughly clean schools.”

Why are they deep cleaning schools? I thought we all concluded many months ago that the risk from an airborne virus lies in poor ventilation, not contaminated surfaces. Is the Detroit teachers’ union still wiping down its groceries too?

Jokes aside, this is a terrible disservice to Detroit’s kids. Schools should be looking for ways to extend the education year to catch up on learning missed due to last year’s closures, not looking for excuses to shift back to remote learning.

Last year it was fear of the virus that kept schools closed. This year it’s staff shortages that are forcing closures, especially shortages of support staff. Full-time teachers have mostly remained on the payroll, whether due to the job stability and generous benefits they enjoy or because they feel bound not to quit by their sense of duty to educate kids. But substitute teachers, bus drivers, and other administrative staff aren’t paid as much and have looked elsewhere for work with so many plum opportunities available in so many industries right now.

How do you keep a school running when parts of its human infrastructure are missing? In Michigan, 21 different school districts have had to close at least one building since September due to staff shortages. Southfield, the district mentioned by MacGillis, shifted to four days per week in person plus remote learning on Fridays earlier this month and will continue with that until at least January because they can’t get all the staff they need to work a full week. A recent email to parents in the district also cited disruptions to the food supply chain and the “less than optimal learning environment” those disruptions create as a further reason for shifting to remote Fridays, a hint that some students and/or teachers may be too focused on simply feeding themselves to concentrate on learning. In the Novi school district, the buses don’t even run on Fridays because they can’t find enough drivers so kids are on their own in getting to school.

It’s not just Michigan. Schools in other states are shaving down class time here and there to accommodate teacher burnout and a dearth of available substitutes.

Michigan has in recent weeks seen at least eight schools shut down or return to online learning because of staff shortages. In Florida, Brevard Public Schools said Wednesday it would extend its Thanksgiving break, while public schools in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, gave teachers and students an extra day off for Veterans Day…

Snow said teachers are constantly struggling to simultaneously teach new material, provide mental and emotional support to their 20,000 students, and catch up from lost days. She sees the trauma every time she walks the halls: tears, anger, impatience. Harder to see are the headaches, the anxiety, the nausea from constant pressure…

Pre-pandemic, Boulder Valley School District had a pool of about 900 qualified substitute teachers, but it entered this school year with just 300. Barber said many of those subs, who earn $100 a day, are limiting their days or asking to avoid classrooms of younger, unvaccinated kids. Without subs, the district felt it had no other option.

A RAND survey this summer found a quarter of teachers were thinking of quitting at the end of the school year, with black teachers especially prone to say so. And in some districts that haven’t seen many resignations or retirements, they might be short-staffed anyway because they’re expanding student enrollment this year and need more teachers to help shoulder the load. In one survey taken last month, nearly half of the district leaders and principals sampled said they were struggling to hire enough full-time teachers and almost 80 percent(!) said they were struggling to hire enough substitutes. And, per FiveThirtyEight, you’re right to assume that the problem is worse in lower-income areas: “Indeed, a fall 2021 study of school-staffing shortages throughout the state of Washington shows that high-poverty districts are facing significantly more staffing challenges than their more affluent counterparts. In some places, there are significant numbers of unfilled positions.”

We can all sympathize with teachers who feel burned out after 18 months of endless pandemic insanity, starting with having to figure out on the fly ways to do their job safely. But every front-line worker in the country is burned out and most were at greater risk of contracting COVID on the job than teachers were. If burnout is a good enough reason to keep kids, particularly poor kids, out of school then how will they ever get back on track? What’s the timetable for full-time in-person learning?

I’ll leave you with a depressing report from Oregon about a middle school there that also recently closed for three weeks — not because of a COVID outbreak but because kids were out of school for so long that they’re having trouble readjusting to class. “We are finding that some students are struggling with the socialization skills necessary for in-person learning, which is causing disruption in school for other students,” said the superintendent to parents in an email. Imagine that on a national scale. God help us all.