Some discussion recently about spate of school closures & potential for it to "undermine faith in universal public schooling."

Strap in for a long 🧵 from a former principal about thin margins that schools have always operated on to cover classrooms…
First, let me be clear: absent public health directives, I don't think schools should close. First order concern, (most) kids learn less and lose out on social connections when schools close.
Second order concern: as a parent of a 2nd grader and two pre-schoolers, I've experienced last-minute closures and they suck. Even more disruptive for single guardians and/or those w inflexible work schedules
Nationally, district communications on the timing and rationale for closures have been terrible. Stop closing to "deep clean" or suggest that four-day weekends "offer physical, emotional, mental, and emotional restoration."
Timing of decisions and communication aside, why is it so hard to keep schools open? Because schools can't reliably find enough adults to ensure that every child is supervised.

Why is this such a challenge? Because the pandemic has heightened what's always been a struggle
When I was a middle school principal in the 2010s of a ~600 student school in MA (one of the best funded, and therefore staffed, states in the country), we always struggled to cover classrooms.

Here are the challenges:
My school had around 41 FTE teachers. On any given day between 0 and 5 might be out (will always remember the infamous day when we were short 11, tho)

Why would a teacher miss school and what happens when they are out?
You might think: teachers have summers and holidays off, why do they need to take any other days off during the year?

Not really a fair question, but I'll bite: people get sick, their kids get sick, their daughter gives birth, they give birth, etc.
These are straightforward and you probably imagined them already, but remember that any other life event that occurs during a school day requires coverage: doctor's visit, sister's wedding, death in the family, jury duty, presenting at a conference. All absences require coverage
Overwhelming majority of several hundred teachers I supervised as principal sought to minimize their absences. Many teachers went the whole year w/o single absence.

Always remember Grade 2 teacher from my principal internship who hadn't missed a day in 20+ yrs in Boston Public
Small number of tchrs were regularly absent or regularly absent around long weekends. We had hard conversations with them.

White-collar folks reading thread: mentally tally the # of holiday-adjacent days you took off in past yr. If it was more than 3, we would have had a convo
What about substitute teachers you might ask?

Maybe we all have visions of legions of underemployed artists and musicians making a few bucks on the side as subs.

This is a fiction.
Our district paid $85/day for substitutes. I will leave it to the reader to imagine the droves of folks interested in subbing in a 7th grade classroom for that pay.

At MOST, after September we had two people who we could (unreliably) call on to do daily sub work
Sometimes I would have to let a sub go because their teaching skills were so weak they created an unsafe environment or they acted disrespectfully to our kids
I applaud bold steps like those taken by @SuptEnfield to raise daily sub rates @HighlineSchools from $65 --> $240.

I also think districts should invest more in building and cluster subs. These are full-time employees available to sub w/in school or group of schools
We had one at our school. I argued for increasing the # to reduce the sub scramble AND to create a pipeline into teaching. I got outvoted by our HR and finance offices b/c...there are times when a building/cluster sub wouldn't be needed
And this is the key point that I will get to at the end of the thread...there is no slack built into our school systems

(if you've stuck w/ me this long, thanks, and we're halfway there)
Ok, so what happens when there's an absence and no subs? Well remember I said that we have 41 teachers?

At any given moment, we are only running ~24 classes. Why the discrepancy?
With some variation across contexts, teachers' contracts guarantee them 1 planning block off each day. Most schools also have several special educators working w/ students with IEPs in- and outside of the general education classroom
So, we can ask teachers to cover absent teachers' classes (and provide a ~$40 payment to do so). Many teachers happily provide this support to their students and colleagues, but repeatedly going w/o prep is a strain and can deteriorate instructional quality
W/o prep period, teachers are in high-intensity teaching and student supervision mode for 6.5 hrs w/ only a 25 minute lunch break. Planning, grading, family contact, etc. already is happening in evening, but this just pushes more of that into that time.
Diversion into lunch: we had to fit 4 lunches between 11a - 1p in the caf we shared w/ co-located school w/ mild cleaning between. 25 min lunches are more like 18 min actually once teachers finish supervising student transition to/from caf
Ok, sometimes we can have teachers cover during their preps. This is entirely voluntary.

In a pinch, we can use special educators (and paraeducators) to cover general educators' absences or vice-versa. But, it puts us out of compliance w/ student IEPs--bad ethically & legally
What about other adults in the building? We had a guidance counselor, a social worker, two instructional coaches, two APs and a principal.

This is unusual and due (in part) to our school's high levels of student need and MA's progressive funding formula
So, some of these ppl can cover. But there are tradeoffs. When the SW is covering, who helps students with mental health crises? When AP is covering, who responds to fight in the hall? When an instructional coach is covering, who gives feedback to teachers to help them improve?
Ok, what happens if no other adults can cover? Then, we get really creative:

Option 1: split the class up and farm students out to other (willing) teachers' classes

Option 2: if not during lunch, combine 2 classes and put them in caf under supervision of one (willing) adult
Option 3: recruit custodial team to find helpful projects for students to do w/in school grounds (really getting desperate here)

Option 4: [other principals fill-in-the-blank]
I did all of these things when I was a principal IN NON-PANDEMIC TIMES.

Ok, so now we are getting to the crux of the thread (thanks for hanging in there)
Schools were ALWAYS scrambling to find solutions to teacher absences. We never closed, but we rarely had any slack and were already doing things that were educationally sub-optimal
Now, many of our previous strategies for responding to coverage needs are constrained: can't combine classes, can't put all students in caf, etc.
Plus, coverage needs are greater: teachers told to stay home if slightly ill (during the before times, I came to school sick many times as a teacher, and I can remember the hoarse, sore throats of many teachers in my school); teachers have to quarantine;
teachers' kids have to quarantine; in some areas/fields hiring has been a challenge; plus schools started the year more understaffed than usual (and the baseline is not good up to 20%, see Papay & @MatthewAKraft:…
To wrap: schools struggled to cover classrooms before, it is harder now. Independent of the pandemic:
🚨🚨If we want schools to be able to respond to moments of crisis (and be more effective day-to-day), we need to allocate more resources (over long-term and esp to schools serving historically marginalized students) so there is more slack in the system 🚨🚨

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