‘I do understand the stress.’ Ann Arbor schools superintendent addresses temporary school closures

Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Jeanice Swift said an unusually large number of staff absences has caused the district to temporarily close buildings over the past week.

On Friday and Monday, four of the district’s 32 schools were closed due to staff absences. In Friday’s case, Swift said a total of 506 staff were absent, which led the district to declare a day of remote learning for Forsythe Middle School and Huron and Skyline high schools.

Swift said this is double the absences the district typically experiences, and COVID mitigation measures play a role in many of the cases.

“There’s a higher level right now due to COVID protocols,” Swift told A4. “A lot of folks in the past had just worked through seasonal illness. Frankly, they did that a lot because they’re dedicated professionals. Now with our COVID protocols, if you’ve got the respiratory symptoms, you’re supposed to take the day. Our staff also have children at home, so the same guideline goes for our children.”

She said widespread absences have impacted all positions in the system, not just teachers.

Read: Ann Arbor Public Schools cancels classes for all students on Monday amid staff shortage

“It’s the superintendent’s responsibility to ensure that schools and classrooms are happy and safe and secure and comfortable locations,” she said.

She compared the recent closures to emergency scenarios like electrical outages or inclement weather, and said if the district cannot adequately staff buildings, it is not safe to be open. Swift shared that during her teaching years, schools would handle staff shortages by combining classrooms and taking large numbers of students to the library, but that such measures aren’t possible due to current COVID protocols.

With regard to the ongoing staff shortage, Swift said the district has made strong gains in some areas but is seeing very slow progress in others.

AAPS has had a successful hiring push for bus drivers, and is currently staffed at about 90%. She said that enough drivers are now in training that the district will soon be at 100%, and they are hoping to hire more substitute drivers to have an adequate cushion and keep the bus system running smoothly.

Custodial and food and nutrition workers are also “most of the way there,” said Swift.

What the district needs most right now are childcare workers and substitute teachers.

“We are not getting childcare applicants like we would like to,” said Swift. “Of all the job categories, that is the one where we haven’t seen a rebound.”

With regard to substitutes, Swift said the district has raised the hourly wage rate to $130 for daily substitutes and $150 for substitutes who work Mondays and Fridays. For substitutes filling longer-term positions and are committed to one building, the district is paying $200 per day.

“Our substitute teacher pool is well over 600 people,” she said. “That’s larger than it’s ever been before but it’s still not enough. Some subs maybe will work a couple days a month. The very nature of that work is people really appreciate that they don’t have to do it every day.”

The district has an onboarding process for substitutes that includes background checks, fingerprinting and training in the school system that can take one month or more.

Many parents have taken to social media to express concern over the closures. One parent told A4 that she was already at work at Mott Children’s Hospital on Monday when she got the call that A2STEAM would be shifting to remote learning for the day. Luckily, she was able to find a solution for her three children that attend the school, but if it had happened on another day, she may have had to take the day off work.

When asked if sporadic school closures could become more frequent, Swift said the district will continue with its Fall 2021 plan to keep schools open.

“I do understand the stress and the worry that this will become a pattern, but our posture is that our schools are fully open,” she said.

She said that the high vaccination rate among 12- to 15-year-olds throughout the district and the second consecutive week of declining cases in schools is a positive sign, and that officials are now looking at the pending vaccination of the 5-11 age group against COVID as another turning point in the school year.

“What I’m feeling is we’re coming closer each day to a much-improved situation as we get our pediatric vaccines,” she said. “Our whole system will be healthier, and hopefully our cases will continue to decline.”

Swift shared that AAPS is currently working with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on offering vaccinations for the 5-11 age group in school buildings should they be approved in the coming weeks.

“We just know that school will be a great place to get a vaccine,” Swift said. “We aren’t able to announce it yet, but we are doing preliminary work in cooperation with the state.”

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.