There’s something unnerving about the way the Manhattan school district suddenly changed course this past week.
For weeks, district officials said that they planned to shift students to a four-day-a-week in-person schedule, starting in early November. That is, students would attend school in-person four days a week, rather than the current schedule of two days per week. The other weekdays, they take classes online. The current setup is called the “hybrid” model, which, it seems to us, nearly everyone dislikes. It’s the worst of both worlds — in-person infections, online isolation and disconnection, and the need for teachers to pull double-duty to make that all work.
The idea to shift to more in-person learning is driven by a desire to get kids back to something closer to a normal school experience. Truth is, online learning just isn’t as good as in-person for many students, and of course our society is built around the expectation that kids will go to school on weekdays in the fall, winter and spring.
Then, all of a sudden, when it came time for a school board vote on that shift, administrators pulled the plug. It’s not going to happen this semester.
The trouble, they said, is that they’re short of staff. They can’t fill open vacancies on the staffs of the custodial, food service and transportation departments. Plus they have 40-some staff members on quarantine, and — according to the discussion at the school board meeting Wednesday — they figure they’re going to need even more staff than normal to teach kids in smaller groups in-person.
The notion that the school district is short of, say, paraeducators, is not entirely surprising. But never in the lead-up to this decision did district officials say anything about staffing problems. That doesn’t mean there’s anything dishonest or misleading about this, it’s just unnerving to have that argument surface on the fly.
We suppose that this is part of the position we’ve all been put in, forced to make impossible choices, because of a deadly viral pandemic: School? No school? Split the difference? Isolation or infection? Lockdown or outbreaks? Bars or no bars? Or, bars, but you can’t stand up? And so on.
The reality is that a staffing shortage is not easily remedied, especially if it involves teachers to handle kids in smaller groups. You can’t just haul off and hire a bunch of them, particularly when applicants might be leery of a work environment involving a bunch of teenage infection vectors. (Excuse us for the cynicism. The counter-case was expressed wonderfully by Assistant Superintendent Eric Reid, who said, “When you get to help kids, it's a wonderful thing." Hear hear!)
Anyway, the point is that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon, and that’s why this is all unnerving. It’s not like the school district said they would get kids in schools quicker if the virus numbers come down. It’s not like they said they would fully reopen when the positive test rate is below five percent.
Short of mass vaccination, this is a problem for the rest of the school year.
Unless, of course, things change suddenly again. Which they could. They just did.