Teachers in the U.S. are faced with classrooms where up to half of students are absent because of exposure to COVID-19 or their families keeping them at home over concerns about the emerging coronavirus.
From New York City to Seattle, widespread absences have only helped keep students on track for another pandemic-disrupted school year.
“That really puts a strain on learning. If one day you have three kids in your class and you’re supposed to have 12, you’ll have to do it all over two weeks later when those kids come back, ”said Tabatha Rosproy, a teacher in Olathe, Kansas and 2020 National Teacher of the Year.
Some of the largest school systems in the country report absenteeism of around 20% or slightly more, with some individual schools having far higher percentages of missing students.
Clark County, Nevada schools, which include Las Vegas, typically have 90% attendance, but that number has dropped to 83%. In Seattle, the number of visitors has averaged 81 percent since returning from the winter break. Los Angeles public schools were absent on Tuesday, the first day after the break, about 30% of the district’s 600,000+ students.
In New York City, about 76% of the city’s roughly 1 million students attended class on Wednesday, with some schools reporting more than half of their students.
Adnan Bhuiyan, 17, was at times one of seven or eight students in classes that normally have 30 at the Bronx Latin School. He spent much of the first week after the break in free time wondering why he was here.
Students given takeaway COVID-19 tests took them at school and tested positive, he said, and many are nervous about being exposed.
“Part of me was like, why do we sit here all day doing nothing. Why can’t we just stay at home and learn from afar, he said. “The other part of me knows that the mayor wants to keep the school open for certain reasons, and I can understand that. But the more we’ve been through it, I always thought at this point, it’s a waste of time for everyone because we don’t learn anything. “
Since the highly contagious Omicron variant leads to a shortage of teachers, some schools have temporarily switched to distance learning. Of the roughly 100,000 public schools in the country, nearly 4,200 were closed to face-to-face learning by the middle of the week, according to the Burbio data tracking site.
President Joe Biden emphasized the importance of keeping schools open to personal learning. The White House announced on Wednesday a monthly shipment of 5 million rapid tests and 5 million laboratory-based PCR tests that schools can use for test-to-stay programs to reduce disruption.
The absences lead teachers to wrestle about whether they can get on with the class and how to help the lagging students.
Daniel Santos, a history teacher, said about half of his students were absent when classes resumed after the winter break. Recently, about a third of his classes have been absent from Navarro Middle School in Houston, where over 90% of students are Hispanic. With a view to the standardized tests coming up this spring, he has created video lessons for the missing students that can be repeated at home.
“It’s like an avalanche. It just doesn’t stop. Some students return. Then a new group of students is missing, ”he said.
The district attendance rate in Houston was around 90% this week.
Alejandro Diasgranados, a second grade teacher in Washington, DC, said his class had gone from perfect attendance to a few days on most days since the winter break. The absences are increasing pressure to help students who were already behind due to the pandemic, he said.
The challenge then lies with the teachers, “prescribing an academic study plan for almost every student,” he said.
The absence of students has been cited by some teacher unions as a plea for more flexibility in moving to distance learning when conditions so require.
Kathryn Medendorp, an elementary school teacher at the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, said the social and emotional benefits of staying at school offset some of the academic difficulties caused by a lack of students and staff. However, she favors a clear metric that would signal a return to distance learning.
Her school in the mask-compulsory district was missing 21 third-grade students in a single day this week, which is equivalent to one grade, she said. At the same time, only one student was missing from her own second grade classroom.
A final metric “would at least help me feel better if I somehow got this situation under control,” said Medendorp, the secretary of the Northside American Federation of Teachers. “Our figures have already shown that some classes are sitting well, that’s not a problem. It’s spreading like wildfire in other classes, so it’s a problem there and we need to stop that from spreading. “
Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York. Associated Press authors, Heather Hollingsworth of Mission, Kansas, and Michael Melia of Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.
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