A New Staffing Tool to Help Schools Stay Open in the Pandemic

Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stressed the importance of reopening schools for in-person instruction while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 exposure among teachers and students. School closures have caused significant learning loss, according to several experts, especially for non-white students. Spurred by these concerns, an increasing number of districts are aiming to reopen their schools this spring.

But what if there are not enough teachers to staff the classrooms when schools do reopen?

School districts seeking to reopen their schools for in-person instruction this spring could face daunting staffing challenges. For many districts with in-person instruction, large numbers of teachers have been in quarantine each day because of COVID-19 exposure, forcing district and school administrators to scramble to find enough staff to be at school. Principals and even district superintendents have had to fill in for absent teachers. Ultimately, some districts that reopened their schools have switched back to fully remote learning because of insufficient staffing for in-person instruction.

Forecasting potential teacher shortages may help school administrators prepare for this challenge.

Our new, free online tool provides critical information that district and school leaders need to anticipate and address potential shortages. The tool helps them forecast the percentage of teachers who will need to stay at home on a typical day because of exposure to COVID-19. The forecast is tailored to the district or school, including typical class sizes, COVID-19 rates in the local community, and extent of teacher vaccination.

By using this tool to plan ahead, districts will be better able to keep students in their classrooms and preserve school and district leaders’ time for their essential leadership responsibilities. With the forecast in hand, a district or school can compare the number of teachers projected to be at home with the number of available substitute teachers. If more teachers are forecasted to be at home than the number of substitute teachers who can fill in for them, the following options might be on the table:

  • Hire more substitute teachers. The demand for substitute teachers has soared during the pandemic. To secure more substitute teachers, districts might need to offer competitive wages and benefits and cast a wide net to identify candidates.
  • Adjust instructional arrangements. For example, in middle and high schools, block scheduling—in which a teacher sees each section of students every other day for a double period—reduces the teacher’s daily number of contacts with students, lowering the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
  • Reconsider quarantine procedures. If a district has been automatically quarantining teachers who were in the same classroom as an infected student, it might decide instead to quarantine only teachers who had close contact with the student as defined by the CDC (being within six feet for 15 minutes).

Some options, such as adjusting instructional arrangements, would also reduce the risk of transmission in schools, whereas other options, such as relaxing quarantining procedures, might increase it. Forecasts from this tool should be considered alongside these other risk assessments when determining staffing policies.

Our team developed this tool because we believe in the power of evidence to help inform decision making at the highest levels. As parents and school board members, we have experienced the challenges posed by teacher shortages firsthand. We are committed to producing timely and relevant evidence to help communities navigate these challenges and provide access to safe, high-quality education for all children.

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