GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Rising COVID-19 cases are reducing the number of students and staff inside school buildings across West Michigan. It has left many administrators to make tough decisions on if students should be in-person or learn remotely.
“We’ve had a number of classrooms that have had to go virtual for a week either due to COVID-19 or staff shortages,” said Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesperson John Helmholdt. “Both worlds are colliding at the same time.”
It’s a nationwide problem that local schools know all too well.
Belding Area Schools is coming off a much-needed break to get teachers and staff back in the classroom. Last week, Superintendent Brent Noskey and other school staff decided to close all of its schools on Friday because of the number of students and staff out sick. Eighteen staff members couldn’t come to work and there were not enough students in the classroom to meet the district-wide attendance policy.
“If you get under 75%, you can’t count the school day,” Noskey said.
GRPS hasn’t had to announce a district-wide closure, but when the decision is made, leaders say it’s not an easy one.
“There’s not a perfect situation and obviously with all things COVID — expect the unexpected,” Helmholdt said.
It’s all hands on deck to fill a teacher’s spot. Principals, paraprofessionals and other staff members have had to step into the classroom to help fill vacancies.
GRPS and BAS monitor COVID-19 cases, and before they decide to close schools, they don’t just factor in how many teachers are out but also is there enough coverage in the classrooms.
As schools continue to deal with substitute teacher and bus drive driver shortages, superintendents agree that it’s hard not to close.
“With COVID-19, there are not just enough (substitute teachers) in the pool to cover all of these outages for staff,” Noskey said.
With the new quarantine guidelines, which allow people to quarantine for at least five days, schools may close somewhere between a day and a week.
Deciding how long to close is on a case-by-case basis and depends on when an adequate number of students and staff are allowed back on campus.
Administrators say they are doing what they can with the information they have. They wish they could give advance notice about closures to give parents enough time to prepare, but sometimes it’s not possible.
“That’s why we just continue to ask for some grace, some patience and understanding. We are trying to do right by our kids, right by families, right by staff,” Helmholdt said.
Administrators say schools will continue to have shortages if they don’t get help soon. So districts ask people who can help to fill out an application to work as a substitute teacher or bus driver to help keep schools open and adequately staffed.
“We pay $125/day now. If you become a (substitute teacher) who works 60 days in our district, we will pay you $150/day for a year time,” Noskey said. “I think it’s much better pay now to be a (substitute teacher), and there is flexibility for folks who don’t want to work Monday through Friday. They can pick the days they want to work.”