Boston schools face staff shortages amid sky-high COVID cases

Most of the nation’s nearly 100,000 public schools are open. But as the omicron surge continues, some districts are struggling to keep in-person learning going. Boston Public Schools have been operating in person since last spring, though a high number of cases are raising concerns about whether there will be enough teachers and staff. Stephanie Sy reports on how the district is faring.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's turn now to another important part of COVID's impact.

    Most of the nation's nearly 100,000 public schools are open. But, as the Omicron surge continues, some districts are struggling to keep in person learning going.

    Stephanie Sy reports on how the Boston school district is faring.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Boston Public Schools have been operating in person since last spring, and aim to continue to do so.

    But, as cases in the city remain sky high, the virus is keeping many teachers and staff home, and student attendance has dropped from around 90 percent before winter break to 70 percent in the new year. Some city officials say virtual learning has to remain an option if the surge continues.

    For more on the challenges facing Boston Public Schools, we turn to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

    Superintendent Cassellius, thank you so much for joining us.

    I understand the staffing shortage has been so severe that you yourself recently filled in as a substitute teacher in a school. So, where do things stand with staffing now? Are you still seeing a lot of COVID cases?

  • Brenda Cassellius, Superintendent, Boston Public Schools:

    Well, thank you, Stephanie, for having me this evening and for highlighting the real — the seriousness of the challenges that school districts have across the nation to keep in person learning going.

    We are still seeing challenges, although not as bad. We had about 1,200 staff out. We're down to about 800 staff out. So, we're starting to see the numbers go down, only 435 teachers, so that's looking better, and 41 bus drivers today.

    So the numbers are going in the right direction, but still a lot more to do.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Are you getting a sense you have reached a peak, then?

  • Brenda Cassellius:

    We do. We have been talking to our Boston Health Commission. They believe that we are at the peak. They have been looking agent the wastewater and — predictions and other modeling from other cities and towns.

    And, of course, as they look at this Omicron variant, it looks like it is going to be going down quickly, hopefully.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    We have seen other major school districts, Superintendent, having to at least temporarily put a pause on in person schooling as they grapple with safety and the staffing issues.

    At what point do you think you might have to pull the trigger and go back to online learning?

  • Brenda Cassellius:

    Well, we have been fortunate here to really have a great data process with our team.

    We have our deputy of academics working with our deputy of operations and our chief of schools and our data team. And we come together multiple times during the day to look at the real-time staffing on the ground with our leaders and then also to work with our Boston Health Commission to look at the spread of the virus within our schools.

    And then we make classroom-by-classroom decisions, school-by-school decisions. I have the wonderful support of my mayor. So I have been able to work with her and her team as we begin to make these decisions about if and when we have to close a classroom or a school, which we haven't had to close any schools yet.

    We have had to close a couple of classrooms before winter break, but we keep watching it very closely.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And yet there is pressure from students.

    Hundreds of students, in fact, in Boston Public Schools joined the students in Chicago Public Schools to stage a walkout today. They, along with school nurses and teachers, have expressed concern, Superintendent, about whether there's adequate testing, contact tracing N95 masks to really be back safely in person.

    What are you doing to concretely allay their concerns?

  • Brenda Cassellius:

    Well, I have met with them, which is the one thing, because we value student voice here, and we're very supportive of our students.

    We also are just thankful that the Biden administration has stepped up to provide additional testing for our students. We have been working with our state partners as well to be sure that we have the test kits in place. We provided additional masks to our students and to our teachers.

    And then, of course, we have put in air quality sensors in all of our classrooms. And we have been watching that air quality very closely with our environmental team.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And all of those things are in place now; those test kits are in students' hands?

  • Brenda Cassellius:

    Yes, we have our testing that we have. We have ordered additional tests, 500,000 additional tests. We expect to get more from the Biden administration and our state to have those available to our students.

    We have had pool testing and test-and-stay programs all year. And so that's been part of our mitigation effort, along with the masking and along with the air quality.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I want to ask you a little bit more about the options you have if things do take a turn for the worse.

    You said that you believe the cases have peaked. But Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, says in person school is — quote — "not only safe, it's healthy." And he's referring to learning, as well as socialization.

    But he's gone further by basically requiring districts like yours to remain in person. Do you agree with that stance? Or do you think there should be more flexibility for online learning at some point?

  • Brenda Cassellius:

    So, I do believe that in person learning is the best for our students right now. The isolation over the past two years has been really difficult.

    And having them with their caring and competent teachers in their classrooms is absolutely the best position. I do think, though, he could build a lot of goodwill with superintendents if we had just a little bit more flexibility with the remote learning pieces as we navigate the on-ground reality of staffing and the on-ground reality of COVID spread in our schools.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Brenda Cassellius:

    Thank you so much, Stephanie.

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