School and district leaders are facing many difficult choices in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, especially when trying to balance the needs of their students with the health of the greater community. Should they close schools in order to slow the spread of the virus? How do they adhere to requirements for state-mandated annual instructional time? What are the consequences for student learning if classes are taught online, particularly for disadvantaged students, who tend to learn the least through this method? And how do they make sure that these more vulnerable students are receiving the meals they need, which they currently rely on from school?
In addition to all of the considerations for students’ health and academic progress, school and district leaders must also take into account the well-being of the teacher workforce, whose support they rely upon to keep learning going. While we recognize that there are no easy answers, we have put together a list of considerations for district and school leaders to ensure that their teacher workforce is supported and included as decision-makers through appropriate emergency planning and preparation.
1. Take steps to keep the workplace safe
By now, most of us know that we need to wash our hands and stay at home if we feel sick, per the CDC’s guidelines for keeping the workplace safe.
But there is evidence that teaching students to practice good hygiene can also help. During the 2008-2009 flu season, students at five elementary schools in Pittsburgh were provided with disease-prevention training (e.g. coughing in one’s elbow, washing hands for 20 seconds) by the Pittsburgh Influenza Prevention Project. Compared to the control group, the schools that received the intervention experienced 25 percent fewer absences and had less than 50 percent as many confirmed cases of influenza A.
While we don’t know for certain whether these same interventions will help with COVID-19, we do know children are likely to be vectors for the disease who can spread the virus to adults, and we should teach them how to minimize this risk.
2. Involve teachers in emergency planning
Teachers are on the front lines in the classroom: they are interacting daily with potentially sick kids and parents, while also trying to protect themselves. The American Federation of Teachers has put out a list of Guidance for Local K-12 Leaders on Information Requests and Requests to Bargain, which recommends that teachers have a seat at the table to ask questions and help make decisions to prepare for an emergency response. By creating more transparency around the steps schools are taking, teachers are more likely to feel ownership over the plans and ensure they are carried out effectively, which is the goal of every school and district leader.
3. Prepare for teachers to get sick, even if students stay healthy
Even if children are healthy and ready to learn, adults may face additional complications from COVID-19 and require more time off. This is a particular challenge when teachers exceed their allotted paid leave but are not yet healthy enough to return to the classroom.
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School districts from across the country offer models for how to address teacher sick leave, which is typically decided by the local school board. For example, Seattle Public Schools announced that if teachers get sick during the pandemic, they must use sick leave to cover the first three days and that the district will then provide another eleven days of paid leave, or up to 14 days total.
In districts that have dealt with disasters that have shut down schools in the past, emergency leave guidelines may have already been established. For example, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District outside of Houston has an emergency closure leave that provides all employees with 10 days of paid leave should the district close.
In New Orleans, the district is preparing by collecting daily staff absence data, anticipating that staff absences could create the need for additional service contracts as they hire more substitutes.
Districts should take steps now to plan for teacher absences. This may include coordinating between the school board and unions to come a revised agreement around sick leave, knowing that there is a good chance that some teachers will need it.
4. Train teachers to prepare for long-term school closures
Districts nationwide are grappling with the reality that schools may be closed for much of the spring or even until the end of the school year; but there is still an expectation that teachers will teach and students will learn.
While it will certainly be challenging, districts should try to find the time now to provide teachers with the professional development needed to set them up for success in the months ahead. This could mean refreshing teachers on using the district’s learning management system to teach online courses, or asking them to prepare packets of learning materials and homework for students to take home, as was done in New Orleans.
No one knows for certain what the next few months will look like in our communities, but we do know that there are important steps districts can take today to support the teacher workforce so that they may help to provide continuity for student learning.