DETROIT – Kaitlyn Reynolds, a single mother, was happy that her son, LJ, has finally made his way to fourth grade after a bad last year with distance learning.
Then, on Wednesday, November 17, it was announced that Detroit public schools are closing their classes every Friday in December. There would only be a virtual school.
It was announced on Friday that the school has also been canceled from that Monday for an entire Thanksgiving week. There was no online opportunity this time.
“Do you need to pick up the kids again?” said Ms. Reynolds. “How does it not hurt these students?”
After months of relative calm, some public schools are being removed from school or are canceling classes altogether for a day per week or even for a couple of weeks due to teacher burnout or staff shortages.
At least six other school districts in Michigan extended their Thanksgiving break, and three counties in Washington state, including Seattle’s public schools, closed unexpectedly on November 12, the day after Veterans Day. In one case, Brevard public schools in Florida used the remaining “hurricane days” close schools for the whole week of Thanksgiving.
In Utah, the Canyons School District announced that all of its schools will be telecommuting on one Friday a month from November to March, the equivalent of more than a week of schooling.
Some of these counties have closed without much notice, causing parents to struggle to find childcare and also to raise funds to oversee distance learning. Logistics aside, many parents are concerned that the extra days lost in full-time school will leave their children further behind.
School districts cited a variety of reasons for the temporary closures, from an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases to the need for thorough disinfection of classrooms. But for many schools, distance learning days – an option that didn’t exist before the pandemic – are the latest attempt to keep teachers from firing. Educators say they burned out after a year trying to help students cope with knowledge loss and worked overtime to fill a labor shortage.
According to Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers’ union in the country, class battles – from demands for masks to debates over a critical theory of race – have also taken a toll.
“You hear from the teachers that it was too much,” she said. “And they try their best.”
However, these temporary closings can only complicate relations with parents at a time when tensions are already high in many areas.
Ms. Reynolds, who works at the University of Michigan research lab, has run out of paid free time due to the cancellation of school last academic year. Her mother was able to look after her son in fourth grade last Friday. But now she’s struggling to make sure someone else can be at home with him every Friday this month – or lose hundreds of dollars from her paycheck.
School brawls and other student outbursts have forced district leaders at Reynolds High School in Fairview, Oregon, east of Portland, to cancel classes from November 18 to December 7. They notified the parents two days in advance.
“Are you kidding me?” said Missy Kisselman, mother of Sophia, an eighth grader. “I mean, are you kidding me?”
Ms Kisselman, who works in her living room as a district curator, said it was “almost impossible” for her to help Sofia, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, with her studies.
“I think if this school knew they were no longer staffed this school year, they should have just stayed online,” said Ms Kisselman.
Stephen Padilla, a district spokesman, said the school used this time to think about its safety protocols to “ensure we don’t have to go back to short-term distance learning” in the future.
In Portland, Oregon, the teachers’ union is offering parole days for high school students after they return from winter break.
Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Teachers’ Association, says her union is receiving an “alarming” number of requests from teachers asking for help with layoffs. If the union can come up with a plan now, she said, it would help avoid mass layoffs that would result in schools being removed entirely.
“It is much better for our students and families to be able to plan for such an inconvenience than if the entire system were to stop functioning,” said Ms Thiel.
In Southfield, near Detroit, the school district warned parents on Sunday 31 October that it will be removed this Friday and then every Friday until February. Christina Morgan, whose daughter is in eighth grade at the University High School Academy, said she learned about it through social media.
A single mother working in the Wayne County judicial system, Ms. Morgan now spends the beginning of each week asking family members to look after her daughter Kennedy. If she can’t find anyone, she’ll take a day off from work, which she says reflects badly on her office work and makes her feel like a burden to her family.
“It’s very difficult to be a single parent, period,” she said. “But when your life is figured out on the basis that your child goes to school at certain hours — and when I have to struggle to find babysitting outside of those hours or ask around — it’s frustrating.”
Ms. Morgan may have left her teenage daughter at home alone, but worried that she would be distracted by her phone or the Internet instead of focusing on school.
Research shows that disruptions during the pandemic led students to lag behind in math and reading, and the students who were hit hardest by the crisis were already lagging behind. Ms Reynolds, a Detroit-based single mother, said her son, who was once an excellent in math, passed his two-grade exams when he returned to class this year.
Last Friday, Theo Egebrecht, 17, an art senior at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, had no household supplies for his two arts classes that day. He said his science teacher did not show up for the online lesson.
Instead, Mr. Egebrecht spent several hours doing housework petting his cat and browsing TikTok.
“I’m a senior, this is one of the last courses,” he said. “It’s exhausting to miss this.”
Schools have not yet reached winter break, but many teachers have already burned out. It seems that many parents and students do too.
Ms. Kisselman recalls a moment when her daughter asked for help with an assignment.
“She just walked in and out of the living room because her level of anxiety was very high,” Ms. Kisselman said. “She’s like, ‘What should I do? How am I supposed to study on my own? “
Ms. Kisselman had no answer.
“In the end I just looked at her and said, ‘Just don’t do anything today,” Ms. Kisselman said. “Just go to your bedroom and do whatever you want, but don’t mess with the school today.”