Here’s What You Don’t Know About COVID In Public Schools—And How You Can Help

For the past decade, the United States’ public education system has been drastically changing. Few people know about these changes unless they work in schools. As a high school English teacher, I have seen these developments firsthand. With COVID-19 changing the lives of people worldwide, the United States’ public schools have undergone a paradigm shift in how they look and operate. Classrooms are empty, staff shortages are rampant, and instruction is consistently inconsistent. We need to be aware of these changes, not only because thousands of educators are at their breaking points, but because we need concrete actions to improve our public schools. 

1. Classrooms Are Empty

In the United States’ public schools, quarantine and positive rates are rapidly increasing. As of October 6th, 2021, over 58,000,000 K-12 students have been affected by quarantines, school closures, and positive rates in the United States. These students have dealt with changing learning environments, emotional distress, and widespread isolation never seen before. Students are relearning how to learn and socialize; however, it is difficult for students to readapt to school if they are not present to learn. 

In at least five states, it is illegal for public schools to mandate masks (yet public schools can mandate dress codes for students). Even outside these states, the Delta variant is causing havoc in public schools with lower vaccination rates and no mask requirement. Since masks and vaccines limit the spread of COVID-19, without masks and vaccines, students and staff are catching COVID-19. Most states have laws requiring students who come in close contact with COVID to quarantine at home. More positive cases means more students are quarantining. Positive cases and quarantines are emptying classrooms nationwide.

For example, as of September 20th, 2021 in South Carolina, 14% of students have missed school due to COVID-19. This means over 100,000 students in SC have missed a large portion of instruction. These numbers are staggering compared to last year. Yes, students were absent from school last year due to COVID-19, but the absences were not nearly as bad as this year. Lexington School District One, one of the largest public school systems in South Carolina, had a maximum COVID positive case count last year of 141 students positive at one time. At the district’s peak COVID spread last year, they had 141 students positive district wide at one time. On September 3rd 2021, the district had over 700 students positive with COVID-19 at once, with over 6,000 students quarantined—25% of the district’s student population absent from school. After three full weeks of school this year, the district had five times the number of positive student cases than their peak last year. Three weeks without social distancing, masks, plexiglass, and other safety protocols, along with the Delta variant, caused the district’s classrooms to empty out. This is only one school district in South Carolina; this situation is happening nationwide. 

How do these numbers look in a classroom? During my morning class in the third week of school, my class was empty. Zero students were in class due to positive COVID-19 tests and quarantines. My class was not empty because of an outbreak in the room; it was empty because of a collection of different exposures schoolwide. My class did not collectively get sick and have to quarantine; each student had their own separate COVID-19 exposure, adding up to an empty classroom. Other classes may look differently, but they still have an unprecedented high number of absences. It is important to note all students have to quarantine at different points throughout the school year. One student might be gone the second and third week of class; another is gone the fourth and fifth week of class; another is gone the first month of class; one is quarantined for weeks two and three, present for week four, but then quarantined again weeks five and six. This is a glimpse into the chaos of the classroom. While classes are emptying nationwide, they are simultaneously overflowing with students. 

2. Staff Shortages and Overflowing Classrooms

How can classrooms be overflowing when they are empty? Staff shortages. Public education has been in a staffing crisis for years. Teachers have been leaving in droves for the past decade. As of 2019, according to the Learning Policy Institute, who has studied teacher shortages for years, the United States had a teacher deficit of over 100,000 positions. This deficit is on track to increase exponentially. Between 2009 and 2014, the enrollment for college teaching programs has decreased by 35%. More teachers are leaving the profession while less are entering it. The deficit compounds year after year, and the cracks are truly showing during the pandemic. 

What happens when there is a teacher shortage of over 100,000 positions? Millions of students without designated teachers. Working teachers and staff watch those students, making already large class sizes rise to 40-50 students per class. Teachers watching the extra students have an extra 20-25 students physically in their class, yet the students aren’t part of their class. As an example, a sixth grade science teacher might have an additional 20-25 students in their room because those students do not have a math teacher; students are physically present in the science teacher’s room, yet are not part of the science class. Managing more students creates a more stressful job environment, contributing to the teacher shortage. If the school administration cannot find enough staff to watch the students without teachers, then they usually put students without teachers in a large area like the gym, cafeteria, or auditorium. 

Teachers aren’t the only ones affected by a staffing shortage. Bus drivers, substitutes, custodial workers, and nurses are all in high demand. Districts are rapidly losing bus drivers due to working conditions and competitive pay elsewhere.  Schools, if they are lucky, have 2-3 substitutes to cover classes for teacher vacancies, sicknesses, and personal leave. Some schools have as little as one or two custodial workers to clean up after hundreds of students and staff every day in the midst of a pandemic. School nurses are in charge of handling medications, contact tracing COVID-19, dealing with health emergencies, measuring classroom layouts, and making home phone calls for multiple schools. One person responsible for thousands of people in multiple locations. All of these shortages were apparent before the pandemic; however, the pandemic has exacerbated their effects, increasing class sizes and straining the remaining school staff. It is hard to fathom that classrooms can be both empty from quarantines and overflowing from staff shortages, but it is a crippling reality. Unpredictable learning environments cause consistent instructional inconsistency. 

3. Consistent Instructional Inconsistency

With class sizes varying from empty to completely overcrowded, schools are struggling to implement consistent instruction to students. With the rising spread of COVID-19, schools are transitioning from in-person learning to temporary virtual learning and back to fully in-person learning.  Students, parents, and teachers are expected to break their routine on short notice, moving from in-person learning to virtual learning immediately. This is short lived. Once everyone is accustomed to virtual learning, they are thrown back into in-person learning after the COVID-19 spread has temporarily slowed. Yet as we have all experienced over the past year and a half, the cycle continues. Without masks, social distancing, and safety protocols, the COVID-19 spread increases. Instruction regularly switches from in-person, to virtual, back to in-person. This is not including the nightmare of switching between other variations like hybrid and dual modality learning.

Empty classes, teacher shortages, bus driver shortages, custodial shortages, in-person learning, virtual learning, in-person learning again, students quarantined at different points of instruction, nurse shortages, substitute shortages, class sizes doubling—a tornado of effects that ultimately leads to inconsistent instruction for our students, inconsistent schedules for parents, and inconsistent planning for school staff. We must unite as one body to give our students, parents, and staff a consistent and safe school paradigm. 

How can you help?

1. Follow CDC Recommendations

The CDC is the United States expert on widespread public health and epidemiology. They have millions of dollars into researching COVID-19, its spread, and vaccinations against it. The CDC currently recommends, due to the rampant spread of the Delta variant, that all people, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in an area with high COVID spread. Nobody enjoys wearing a mask; however, we need to wear a mask and get vaccinated to regulate school for our teachers, staff, parents, and students.

Mask wearing and high vaccination rates will lower the spread of COVID-19; therefore, students can be present in class and have the benefits of receiving consistent instruction. With a lower spread rate, teachers will be able to plan more effective instruction, not worrying about juggling students quarantined, positive, and present. Teachers will have fewer absent students to juggle and can focus more on their instruction, student feedback, grading, and curriculum development. Nurses will have time to effectively communicate information to families. They can return to focusing on the overall health and needs of their schools. Lowering COVID spread will give equal access to education for immunocompromised students, families, and staff members. Wearing masks and getting vaccinated will help our students be in a safe learning environment, giving them the safety they need to become effective learners. Most importantly, it will help keep our community safe and avoid unnecessary illnesses and deaths—avoiding heartbreaking loss. 

2. Become a Substitute, Bus Driver, and/or Other Staff Worker

Staff shortages have been skyrocketing the past decade in public schools. You can help by becoming a part time employee of your local public school district. Any amount of time you can give back to your district creates ripples of positive change. For example, if you can substitute classes one day a week, you are giving another staff member time to focus on their job. You give teachers more time to catch up on grading, plan instruction, build curriculum, manage quarantined students, and bring back consistency to their classroom. You give administrators more time to manage the daily operations of a school. You give students someone reliable they can trust to ensure their well being. You are serving your community by filling a vacancy. Whatever position you apply for—bus driver, custodial worker, substitute, administrative assistant, anything!—you are creating waves of positive change.

3. Be Flexible and Understanding of Changing Environments

Our school environment is constantly changing. In the last year alone, we have experienced a combination of in-person learning, hybrid learning, dual modality, and virtual learning. Our country is constantly changing. Our world is constantly changing. We must all be flexible and embrace change. Educators are doing their best to serve their students. Families are doing their best to take care of their children. We must understand that everyone is subjected to these changes. We all want what is best for the children; we all must understand each other and everyone’s struggles with change. 

Public education is a team that needs the support of all its players. Without everyone’s cooperation, our public education system will continue to lose more and more staff, continue to have inconsistent learning environments, and continue to lose sight of our common goal: a better future for our children. We must lessen the stress on our public schools by listening to public health experts, understanding how our actions affect daily life in schools, and seek to understand others’ perspectives. Apply to your local school district. Help us create a stable learning environment for our children. Wear masks and get vaccinated. Keep our children and families safe. Without each other, we are stagnant, frozen in turmoil and anguish; with each other, we are the future, painting waves of compassion over the generations to come.