As the COVID-19 positive test rates continue to soar in Suffolk County and across the country, the question of whether school districts can remain open for in-person classes could come down to the simple but crucial matter of adequate staffing.
In his report presented at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, Sag Harbor School Superintendent Jeff Nichols pointed out that in addition to having 62 students out because of either a positive coronavirus test or, for the vast majority of that group, being in close contact to a positive case, the school is also dealing with the absence of 20 staff members whose lives have also been upended, at least temporarily, by the pandemic. As of Monday, 11 teachers at the elementary school and nine who work in the middle school or high school were unable to teach in person — and in some cases virtually as well — either because of medical conditions, mandatory quarantine requirements, or because they needed to stay home to care for a child that could not be in school.
“I think that the thing that’s going to make the decision for us in Sag Harbor as to whether or not we can stay open are practical managerial concerns related to staffing,” Mr. Nichols said. “When you have a situation where you have 20 staff members either teaching remotely because of a medical condition or under quarantine, and the numbers continue to increase, at what point are we short the necessary staff to continue to operate in the way we’d like?”
Mr. Nichols spoke about how the necessary shuffling of staff required by such a high number of absences has threatened the sanctity of the carefully separated cohorts the school has created in an attempt to blunt the impact when positive cases are identified within the school.
“Just today, there was a test-positive situation in the Learning Center, and when we looked into it in terms of contact tracing, what we found is that we had to shuffle staff around, which undermines the principle of cohorting,” he said. “And if that becomes necessary to stay open, that’s not a path I want to go down. The board should know we’re getting pretty close to that.”
Board members were clearly alarmed by that assessment, and immediately started trying to brainstorm ideas to avoid closure. Adding to the problem has been the dearth of substitute teachers, an issue facing schools across the county and indeed the country. They are needed more than ever, but many would-be subs are reluctant or unable to work in schools, making them harder to find. One board member wondered if teaching assistants could be used to fill in as teachers when the main teacher is out, but Pierson Middle and
High School Principal Brittany Carriero pointed out that those assistants are often in the classroom to comply with an IEP for a particular student, and must adhere to that designation.
Board member Chris Tice asked if there was a way to expand the staff, to have a “deeper bench,” pointing out that because schools are now recognized as relatively safe spaces that are not the source of super spreading when it comes to the virus, parents are eager for their children to remain in school in person. Mr. Nichols said that hiring additional staff is an option, which carries the bonus of having them “locked in” for a period of time, but he pointed out that if a school closure is mandated by the state, then the district would still be on the hook for paying those additional staff members, which would not be the case when relying on substitute teachers.
He also floated the idea of further incentivizing potential substitute teachers to join the available pool by increasing the rate of pay, an idea that Ms. Tice said she supported. Board President Brian DeSesa said that was a great idea “in theory,” but wondered if that would actually increase the number of people willing to come in.
Mr. Nichols pointed out that finding personnel to fill those roles was really only half the equation.
“The quality with which they fill the role is a separate equation,” he said. “At some point, we have to make critical judgments about whether or not, at the end of the day, that’s better than going all remote if the program delivery through remote is more consistent with more quality staff. I’m not leaning either way, but an analysis should take into account both considerations.”
Board member Jordana Sobey also pointed out that the staffing issues might force certain schools within the district or certain grade levels to go remote for a few days or weeks, rather than forcing a district-wide shutdown, which Mr. Nichols agreed with, saying which schools or grade levels would need to close and for how long would depend on how wide-reaching a particular case is.
The conversation about staffing was a stark reminder of just how much things have changed as the county and country have rapidly moved into the thick of an intense second wave of the virus, and the test positive rate in Suffolk County has quadrupled in just one month’s time, sitting just above 6 percent at the start of the week.
Mr. Nichols also reminded the board that at any time, he could get the call from the state that the area has been designated as a micro-cluster district, which would require the school to start testing a portion of the building population to stay open. He reiterated the school’s commitment to trying its best to work with that requirement should it come down the pike, but said it would be another logistical hurdle — one that would also likely require additional staffing — if it happens.
Mr. Nichols said he thinks a microcluster designation “is forthcoming,” and said the school put out an ad seeking to hire additional nursing staff to be prepared for that scenario. The fact that both Hampton Bays and Riverhead have already been conducting in-school testing means that there is now a roadmap for other schools to follow, which Mr. Nichols said would be helpful.
Business administrator Jennifer Buscemi — who was approved by the board recently for a full-time position that started on December 1 — was part of the meeting and told the board that she would make a presentation at the next meeting, sharing the impact the pandemic has had on the school budget.