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Inside Covid-19 school closure: Pennsylvania superintendent agonizes over estrangement

More schools have closed and moved away across the United States in the past few days than at any time this school year, leaving communities in a rush to reorganize as a result of often last-minute decisions.

The experience of a superintendent outside of Philadelphia shows the considerations that go into this decision and how its effects quickly reverberate across an entire region.

At 1 p.m. on Monday, Christopher Dormer, superintendent of the Norristown area school district, met online with his cabinet to discuss staff shortages related to Covid-19. Mr Dormer said he had hoped schools would remain open, wary of the disruption in the community that a return to distance learning would bring. He compared the anxiety generated by the Omicron variant to a 5,000-pound piano suspended by a frayed string above his head.

Two hours later, he received updates on the growing number of teachers and staff who had called themselves sick for the next day. Three of the 12 schools in the district are expected to be remote, he concluded, soon increasing that to the majority of schools. About 115 of the nearly 1,000 district employees, or about 11%, are said to be absent. Replacements were scarce.

At 6:30 p.m., the district broke the news to staff and the families of its nearly 8,000 students that Norristown public schools would be removed until at least Friday.

Norristown area school district superintendent Christopher Dormer said the decision to revert to distance learning came after 115 of the district’s nearly 1,000 employees, or about 11%, reported illness .

“The piano kind of crashed into us,” recalls Mr. Dormer, who said he began breathing exercises he learned from his wife to ease the stress of the day.

Mr Dormer’s decision reflects the overwhelming stress that the booming Omicron variant has begun to place on schools in the Northeast and Midwest.

More than 4,500 schools nationwide will be closed at least one day this week due to the pandemic, the highest number in months, according to Burbio Inc., a Pelham, NY data company that tracks the K-12 school closures.

Despite calls from the White House urging schools to stay open, schools in Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee have all become remote. Chicago decided to close early Wednesday after the teachers’ union said classrooms were in unsafe conditions.

At the root of the closures: staff shortages. While student absences are also high due to positive Covid-19 cases, children generally do not become seriously ill. But many adults, whether sick, caring for a sick family member, or wary of close contact with others, stay home. School officials report shortages among teachers, administrators, cafeterias and guards, bus drivers and others.

The buses for the Norristown area school district are empty with no students to transport to class.

The student body in the Norristown District is predominantly poor or working class and in the minority. Many parents cannot work from home, according to school officials. Mr Dormer’s decision to close schools ricocheted through neighborhoods as parents frantically adjusted their schedules and businesses struggled to stay open.

When Carol Austin-Ballard, director of operations at Willow School, which offers toddler care and before and after school programs for elementary students, learned of the closure Monday night, she sent an email. She told parents she couldn’t take their school-aged children the next day. Several parents called. Ms Austin-Ballard told them there was nothing she could do on such short notice to provide full child care.

“We are understaffed as they are,” said Kym Ramsey, owner of The Willow School. “Most of my parents work and if they don’t take care of their children, they have to stop working. It just started this whole ripple effect.

One of those parents is Ashley Okereke, a single mother of a 7-year-old daughter. She works full time in a probation office and has a second job in the evenings as a home health aide. Because she cannot work from home, Ms Okereke said she uses her vacation to stay with her daughter. In the evening, she takes her daughter to her second job.

Ashley Okereke says she uses her vacation to stay with her daughter, Xhora Nisbett, 7, while classes are held remotely at schools in the Norristown School District.

“I’m disappointed with how they decided to do it all at the last minute,” she said of the school district. “They knew that after any vacation gathering, the cases would increase. They should have been prepared and worked out a hybrid calendar.

Rapid events forced a sudden call, Mr Dormer said. One of the reasons to go remote all week was to avoid day-to-day uncertainty about whether or not to attend in-person school. Among the essential workers who could not work were several school nurses.

School board president Phil Daniels said he supported Mr. Dormer’s decision. “Health and safety first, my friend,” he said when the superintendent called on Monday.

The district plans to return in person on Monday, Jan.10, assuming staff levels rebound, but parents can keep their kids virtual until Jan.21.

Anna DeSanto, who has two children at Norristown Public Schools, said she had to stop working as a kindergarten teacher at a nearby private school that continues to have in-person learning. When she heard Norristown would be pulling away, she called her private school and asked them to line up a replacement.

“The problem is there is a shortage of replacements,” Ms. DeSanto said.

The business district of Norristown, Pennsylvania, where the school district serves nearly 8,000 mostly poor, working-class and minority students, many of whom have parents or caregivers who cannot work from home.

She saw no other option than to take time off to go to work. Her husband is employed in the health sector and cannot be absent. She is concerned that her parents, who are in their 60s, will catch Covid-19 if they spend time with their children.

Many teens will have to give up club activities or sports teams and support their parents, said Erica Genuardi, manager of the Norristown Recreation Center. She expects to be understaffed this week, as several of her 15 employees are high school students who parents will ask to look after their younger siblings while they work.

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“Especially if it is a single parent household, the oldest child becomes the second parent,” she said. “You end up with a 17 year old who stays at home with three younger siblings. “

Quadir Lee is one of these second parents. An 18-year-old high school student, he lives with his mother and his two sisters aged 8 and 1.

Now that the school is far away, he will no longer be able to work at the recreation center and will stay at home with his sisters while his mother works. Mr Lee said he turned on the television for the baby and helped his third-year sister take her classes online and then prepare her lunch.

“It’s easy, however. She listens to what I say, ”he said.

Students in the Norristown area school district are required to take distance education for at least one week.

The district of Norristown went virtual when the pandemic hit in March 2020, and fully online education lasted until spring 2021. Schools were in person throughout the first semester of the current school year, Dormer said, despite serious staff issues that forced directors to wear multiple hats.

At the start of the school year, he and the director of special education drove a van to transport the students to school. Before the winter break, Mr. Dormer served lunch over three days due to a lack of catering workers. The director of human resources taught grade three for half a day, he said, and the deputy superintendent was a special education paraprofessional for a day.

The current absences will also make virtual education a challenge, Dormer said. Its priority is to prevent the type of learning loss and mental health impacts caused by the long period of distance learning.

“We have to be very, very, very tuned in to regression. Don’t give children the opportunity to opt out academically. Don’t give them the opportunity to fall back into bad social and mental health habits because they’re going to stay home, ”he said. “We recognize that children can fend for themselves during the school day. “

Write to Scott Calvert at scott.calvert@wsj.com and Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com

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