Teacher, bus driver, staff absences already posing a challenge to schools

Gary Stern
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Large numbers of staff absences in some Hudson Valley school districts — teachers, substitutes, bus drivers and others — are already making it a challenge to keep schools open after the holiday break.

About 16 districts in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, and Orange counties have gone to remote instruction districtwide or in some schools, primarily because of staff absences, said Marc Laffer, director of New York State United Teachers' regional office that covers those counties.

"I'm sure every district is doing their best to keep the students in the buildings but they must continue to assure that students and staff are safe," Laffer said.

Many districts, including those in Dutchess and Ulster counties, are also reporting large numbers of student absences.

Students, staff and parents wait on line for a rapid COVID-19 test at the Eugenio Maria de Hostos MicroSociety School, Dec. 30, 2021. This is the Yonkers Public Schools Return to School Safely initiative, as schools re-open on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. There is one more day for testing, Jan. 2, 2022, at Eugenio Maria de Hostos MicroSociety School Ð 75 Morris Street; Roosevelt High School Ð Early College Studies Ð 631 Tuckahoe Road and Gorton High School Ð 100 Shonnard Place.

The Tarrytowns school district told families Monday evening it had 101 staff absences on Monday and would switch to all-remote instruction for the rest of the week. "This significant staffing shortage makes it very difficult to safely provide in-person instruction to our students," Superintendent Chris Borsari wrote in a message, adding that he hoped to return to in-person instruction on Monday.

The Millbrook district decided Sunday to go all-remote through the end of the week. It had planned to open schools Monday, but made the switch after a distribution of at-home COVID tests turned up an influx of staff cases. Millbrook reported 11 new staff cases and 22 student cases on Monday.

The district said in a statement that it anticipated possible staffing shortages, but "we did not expect such a sharp spike in a matter of hours."

In Mahopac, Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo announced Monday evening, with 150 teachers and bus drivers out sick, the district would close Tuesday. He called a conference day for staff to plan options for moving forward.

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Tom McMahon, president of the Mahopac Teachers Association, said there are no easy answers for schools as the circumstances they face keep changing. 

"Everyone from teachers’ unions to politicians to school leaders are trying their best to adjust to the ever-changing circumstances and keep schools open for in-person learning, but it is like standing on shifting sand," he said Tuesday morning. "Every time we put our feet on the ground with a plan, the sand moves and makes the plan unstable so we have to constantly evaluate and change."

McMahon said virtually everyone agrees about the importance of in-person learning. But about 500 Mahopac students were absent Monday, he said, and some who did not have COVID were kept home because of family concerns.

"That cannot be ignored," he said.

In the Pine Bush district, students at Pine Bush High School are doing remote learning all week because of staffing issues. The district could not cover for at least 25 staff people who tested positive as recess ended.

The Dover district switched to remote learning for grades 3 through 12 for Monday to Wednesday. Twelve teachers out of 127 and eight other staff members tested positive for COVID on Monday.

The Ossining school district, which went all-remote Monday, said two schools would remain all-remote Tuesday. About 90 staff members were absent Monday. 

Many districts were already facing a critical shortage of substitute teachers, which is now making it especially difficult to cover for teachers who are out with COVID or caring for those who are sick. Districts have raised pay for substitutes and started recruiting more aggressively.

In the Monticello district, spokesperson Courtney Bonfante said substitute shortages, combined with staff illnesses and quarantines and existing staff vacancies, could force schools to pivot to remote instruction. 

The Poughkeepsie district resorts to sending high school students to the auditorium for a study hall when a teacher's absence cannot be covered.

The Wappingers district reported 190 new positive cases among students Monday, with 58 more among teachers and 15 among staff. Superintendent Dwight Bonk said the district's test-to-stay program has helped keep schools in session amid a sharp rise in cases. 

Perla Ocampo administers a COVID-19 test on John Jay High School 11th grader Connor Shea at the Wappingers Central School District offices in Wiccopee on December 2, 2021.

The Dutchess and Westchester health departments chose last month to allow school districts to implement test-to-stay, which involves administering early morning rapid COVID tests to students who have been exposed to COVID. Students who test negative can return to school instead of quarantining at home. Ulster County joined in the guidance Sunday.

In the Arlington district, Superintendent Dave Moyer said he hoped the implementation of test-to-stay this week will enable the district to stay in-person. But staffing is being stretched this, he said. The district reported 263 new student cases Monday and 70 combined cases between teachers (36) and staff (34).

"If we cannot get kids to and from school or staff our buildings, we may have some tough decisions to make," Moyer said.

Pre-recess concerns realized

Even before students in most districts returned to school Monday from holiday recess,  concerns were growing about the implications of rising COVID case numbers and the threat that the contagious Omicron variant would pose.

Educators were anxious that staff absences could make it difficult to run schools. In addition, they expected that more students with COVID could wind up in isolation and out of school and that more unvaccinated students could face quarantine.

And many say there is still a great need for more rapid tests, despite Gov. Kathy Hochul's efforts to get more to schools.

Two of the region's largest districts, Yonkers and New Rochelle, announced that New Year's Eve that they would go with all-remote instruction this week to reduce spread and provide time for students and staff to be tested. The Mount Vernon district had announced before holiday break that it would go all-remote through Jan. 14.

A nurse administers a rapid COVID-19 test at the Eugenio Maria de Hostos MicroSociety School in Yonkers on Dec. 30.

Still, Harry Leonardatos, a Rockland County principal who is president of the School Administrators Association of New York State, said that school districts should make every effort to keep schools open, given the international evidence that the current COVID wave may soon pass.

"We know from South Africa and the U.K. that this wave hits quickly and leaves quickly," he said Tuesday morning. "We have to weather the storm the best we can and move forward. We can utilize remote instruction as necessary, a tool we didn't have in 2019. This situation isn't great — I wish we had more tests — but it would be a shame to go all-remote."

One change that may help school districts with staffing is the state Health Department recently said school staff members who had COVID, as critical workers, can return to work after isolating for five days instead of the previous 10 if they are vaccinated and asymptomatic.

It remains to be seen if the state will allow the same change for students. 

On Dec. 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that infected people isolate for five days instead of the previously recommended 10, though the state has yet to change its guidelines for students. 

Karen Belanger, executive director of the Westchester Putnam School Boards Association, noted that all types of organizations are dealing with short-term staffing issues.

"As recommended by the CDC, we hope that everyone will get vaccinated, boosted and use all the common sense strategies to avoid getting COVID and bringing it into school buildings," she said.

Staff writers Helu Wang and Katelyn Cordero contributed to this report.

Gary Stern is an editor/writer covering K-12 education in the Hudson Valley. Reach him at gstern@lohud.com. Twitter: @garysternNY. Click here for his latest.