District touted as model for fall reopening faces teacher shortages, a growing problem

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com

Mount Olive was once Gov. Phil Murphy’s Exhibit A for how schools could reopen with a mix of in-class and virtual instruction this fall. Now school leaders are not so sure.

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And why? Maybe a lack of teachers to staff their so-called hybrid classrooms.

Superintendent Robert Zywicki, who sat with Murphy in June to help announce the governor’s reopening plan for schools, said Thursday that as much as a quarter of his teaching staff have requested leaves from teaching in the classroom this fall under the district’s hybrid plan that the governor touted.

That would mean 40 substitutes needed for his high school alone, a daunting task when subs are in short supply, anyway, he said. Add in the cost at $100 a day for each substitute, or roughly $20,000 a week.

When asked whether Mount Olive may need to go to all-remote instruction, Zywicki said that decision was still up in the air.

More teachers apply for leave

“We’re watching the numbers and planning for contingencies,” Zywicki said in an interview with NJ Spotlight, “as our [teacher] leave numbers go up on a daily basis.”

With two weeks to go before most schools had been expected to reopen in one form or another, Mount Olive is like countless districts that are continuing to adjust to changing circumstances.

Close to 150 had expressed interest in moving to an all-remote model to start, after Murphy opened the way for the possibility last week. But when those plans might be finalized remains in flux, with the state Department of Education yet to announce its process for reviewing the plans.

What stands out now is that Mount Olive had been highlighted by the governor himself as a district that was ready to move into a hybrid model, with a detailed plan for splitting students into cohorts and intricately varied schedules.

But it has proven a cautionary tale. And, with circumstances on the ground not much improved over the last month, more and more teachers and also families have made it clear they are on edge.

“What’s different between June 26 and now is we were back then ready to have indoor dining and move into Stage 3 [of reopening],” Zywicki said.

‘No indoor dining, but you can still have chemistry class’

That has not happened; Stage 2 restrictions are still in place in the state and there is little indication that will change soon.

“I feel for teachers and understand they are worried,” Zywicki said. “There’s a cognitive dissonance where there is no indoor dining, but you can still have a chemistry class.”

Other districts have reported similar worries about staffing. In Freehold Regional High Schools district, superintendent Charles Sampson said having enough teachers for in-school instruction is his biggest concern.

“We are attempting to open, but I fear we will not be able to staff our schools,” Sampson said in an email.

In Mount Olive, Zywicki said a growing number of teachers have applied specifically for medical leave or, under the new COVID-19 pandemic laws, leave allowed in the case of potential spread of the disease to family members.

“We’re talking 40 subs, at $20,000 a week,” he said of his new staffing needs. “And that’s just one of six buildings.”

“We are ready to open, but you can’t run schools without teachers.”

To read the article in the original format, click: School Without Teachers? NJ Reopening Plans Unclear