SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Tri-Valley Central School teacher Matt Haynes adhered to an overly cautious routine during the first wave of COVID-19. In an effort to protect his students and …
SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Tri-Valley Central School teacher Matt Haynes adhered to an overly cautious routine during the first wave of COVID-19.
In an effort to protect his students and then-pregnant wife, the eighth- to 12th-grade teacher wore one pair of clothes to school, then swapped them out for something clean, stuffing the “dirty” items into a Ziploc bag. He reversed the process for his half-hour ride home, where he would promptly shower before seeing his wife.
“I was over the top—well, we just didn’t know then,” Haynes said.
Two years later, public school teachers and administrators are enduring another brutal round of COVID-19—better prepared to teach students in person, but exhausted as they reckon with absences, fluctuating health protocols and substitute teacher shortages that force overtime and sporadic returns to virtual schooling.
“We didn’t think it could get much crazier than last year, [but] I think it’s probably just as crazy, if not crazier,” Haynes, a member of New York State United Teachers Union, said. “We have new kids out pretty much every day, and the same goes for staff.”
The number of active cases in Sullivan County nearly doubled in the last week of 2021, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard, and the daily average of new cases hit a three-month high in mid-January.
Schools have come up with ways to meet students’ needs despite being short-staffed. Teachers and even administrators have stepped in to cover classes. At Tri-Valley in Grahamsville, Haynes and other staff act as academic one-on-one coaches for quarantined students, putting in time after hours to help them with missed work.
Monticello School District had to go remote on January 21, when 15 transportation staffers called out—nine of whom had COVID-19, according to a release from the school. As of January 26, 380 students, teachers and staff district-wide were COVID-positive, according to the state’s COVID-19 report card.
“The longer it goes on, the more difficult it gets. This seems relentless,” said Monticello High School English teacher John Maranzana. “I will say, in my discussions with colleagues, there has been a pervasive, sort of ubiquitous sense of fatigue that I have not seen in my 29 years of teaching. It has been this persistent cloud over schools.”
COVID has only amplified an existing teacher shortage.
From 2009 to 2017, enrollment in New York undergraduate and graduate teaching programs declined by 53 percent, according to the NY School Administrators Association. A similar study from the state Council of School Superintendents found that 71 percent of superintendents in northern New York reported a “significant problem” recruiting staff.
The problem is particularly acute in rural counties like Sullivan.
“Monticello specifically has always had challenges attracting teachers,” said district spokesperson Courtney Bonfante. “We are competing with Orange County, Rockland County and even Westchester/NYC for a very limited pool of applicants.”
Lacking qualified subs to fill absences left by COVID-positive teachers, full-time staff members are stepping up.
“Staff members are giving up their prep periods, doubling up on their work duties and generally doing whatever it takes to keep the train moving,” Bonfante said. “However, everyone is exhausted.”
To attract new subs, Monticello is upping the incentive. The district has created five new “floating per-diem substitute positions” that pay $200 per day, exceeding the county’s average daily rate of $113. The positions are designed to attract people interested in further professional development and promise 175 days of work—an entire school year’s worth—as well as health insurance benefits. A substitute would be guaranteed to make $35,000 before taxes.
Forty-four days since the district began accepting applications, none of the five positions have been filled.
After 16 years, Haynes still loves his job, but said he thinks the shortage goes beyond substitutes.
“You keep asking for more and more and I don’t know when enough is going to be enough,” Haynes said. “We’ve spent professional development time learning about active shooter drills… That was not part of the job description years ago. Now it’s learning how to survive the pandemic.”
Both Bonfante and Ivan Katz, superintendent of the Fallsburg School District, said one of the most difficult parts of educating in a pandemic has been keeping up with health guidelines.
As scientists and medical experts continue to learn about COVID-19, school districts are particularly susceptible to the flow of revised recommendations.
Here is a brief look at two weeks in New York: On December 17, the same day that the number of new cases hit a record high, New York released its optional test-to-stay protocol, allowing unvaccinated students exposed to the virus to stay in school with testing. Public schools across the state received testing kits, though many reported not getting enough. The state updated those guidelines less than a week later. On December 21, the state announced that it would cancel the January Regents exam. On December 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut its previous isolation recommendation in half, saying that five days was enough time to quarantine from a positive COVID result.
All the while, a Biden Administration mask mandate was receiving backlash. Last week, a state Supreme Court judge in Nassau County struck down the mandate before an appeals court granted a stay.
“The backdrop is constantly changing. The challenge for schools is to constantly be able to roll with the shifts and changes that come from the U.S. Department of Health,” said Katz. “We get updates—sometimes more than one in any single week—with very little time to be able to prepare and accommodate for it. But somehow we’re getting it done.”
In the middle of talking about technicalities, Maranzana stopped himself.
“I don’t want to forget that we have so many people—staff and students—that have gone through a lot of trauma, that really have been affected by this,” he said.
Students are mourning family members lost to the virus. Maranzana said that Monticello has brought in more mental health specialists. Haynes said students have come to him to talk about their emotional state and he worries about the long-lasting social and emotional effects of the pandemic.
Many families have also faced financial setbacks over the last two years. Maranzana noted that finding or affording child care has been a significant issue for parents. In a district like Fallsburg, where the poverty level is about 1.3 times that of Sullivan County as a whole, a school closing means that some students miss a crucial opportunity to eat a full meal, said Katz.
Teachers and staff have learned to rely on each other even more during the last three years, organizing Zoom sessions and gatherings to vent and celebrate victories. Despite everything, teachers commended each other and their administration for rising to the challenge of keeping the schools open.
“I’ve never heard as many kids tell me… that they’re happy to be in school,” Haynes said. “Kids are genuinely happy to be here.”
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