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My Kids’ Schools Already Closed Due to COVID—Staffing Shortages and Contact Tracing Delays Are the Reason

While parents and pundits squabble over kids returning to school buildings, there are behind-the- scenes realities on the ground that make keeping schools open a massive challenge. We may not be hearing about them during press conferences with the governor, department of health director or education commissioner but parents need to know how tenuous and potentially unsustainable the current situation has become.

I received a message last Thursday that my 6th and 8th grader would not be able to go in to school the following day—a student had tested positive for COVID-19 and out of an abundance of caution, the building would not open. Because of a delay in getting buildings open, my middle school boys had been to school a total of 3 times all year. The 4th time wasn’t to be, at least not last week. Fingers are crossed that they get back this week.

Today I received an urgent email that my oldest son’s school is going all virtual starting tomorrow. They have a staff member who has tested positive and because of the other faculty who now need to quarantine, they don’t have enough staff to cover all the classes.

None of this is unexpected.

In speaking to people who run schools, one thing has been clear: the staffing situation has already become unsustainable. They have teachers out of school while they wait 90+ hours for their test results (or the results for their children) — their classes need to be covered while they wait. Just a one teacher out sick with COVID, in quarantine or waiting for test results can quickly cripple a building.

And there is a massive shortage of substitute teachers.

Parents need to know this. If Governor Raimondo wants us to work together to get through this massive challenge, we all need to be fully informed about what is going on. Yes, a low transmission rate in schools is a hugely important and positive piece of information. But it does not tell the whole story—the Rhode Island Department of Health’s backlog of contact tracing and the testing delays that have kept teachers out of schools are also a big part of the story. Schools can’t responsibly stay open if there aren’t enough people in the building to teach and supervise students.

There are lots of reasons why students need to be in school and the harm done by not opening schools will be irreparable for some. It makes me sick when I think about it. But school leaders who desperately want their buildings to be open are not magicians—they can’t snap their fingers and end the sub shortage, change the testing delays or speed up contact tracing. They can’t make up their own rules or metrics about when to close and when to open. They need guidance and many are saying that they aren’t getting it.

More honesty and transparency about the challenges facing schools will make these sudden closures easier to understand and foster good will from parents who just want to know what is going on.

This piece was also published here on Erika’s personal blog, Good School Hunting.

What Do You Think?
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member and the chief editor of this site, Project Forever Free. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She blogs at Good School Hunting and occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons who currently attend a district school, a charter school, and a private school—in 3 different zip codes! Rhode Island is home.

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