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Teachers confront half-empty classrooms as virus surges

Carolyn Thompson

AP – Teachers around the United States (US) are confronting classrooms where as many as half of students are absent because they have been exposed to COVID-19 or their families kept them at home out of concern about the surging coronavirus.

The widespread absences have only added to the difficulty of keeping students on track in yet another pandemic-disrupted school year. In the nation’s largest district, attendance has been so low that New York City Mayor Eric Adams yesterday reversed an earlier pledge to keep children in schools and said he would consider allowing a return to some form of virtual instruction.

“This is really taking a toll on the learning. If you have three kids in your class one day and you’re supposed to have 12, you have to reteach everything two weeks later when those kids come back,” said teacher in Olathe, Kansas, and the 2020 national Teacher of the Year Tabatha Rosproy.

Some of the country’s biggest school systems report absentee rates around 20 per cent or slightly more, with some individual schools seeing far higher percentages of missing students.

The schools in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, typically have 90 per cent attendance, but that figure has dropped to 83 per cent. In Seattle, attendance has averaged 81 per cent since the return from winter break. Los Angeles public schools marked about 30 per cent of the district’s 600,000-plus students absent on Tuesday, the first day back after the break.

Middle school history teacher Daniel Santos during class in Houston. PHOTO: AP

In New York, about 76 per cent of the city’s roughly one million public school students were in class Wednesday, with some schools reporting well over half of their students out.

Adnan Bhuiyan, 17, has at times been one of seven or eight students in classes that normally have 30 at the Brooklyn Latin School. He spent much of the first week back from break in free periods, wondering why he was there.

Students given take-home COVID-19 tests have been taking them and testing positive at school, he said, and many are nervous about being exposed.

“Part of me was like, why are we sitting here doing nothing the whole day. Why can’t we just stay home” and learn remotely, 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 and more we went through it, I just kept thinking at this point it’s a waste of time for everyone because we’re not learning anything.”

As the highly contagious omicron variant causes teacher shortages, some schools have shifted temporarily to remote learning. Out of the roughly 100,000 public schools in the US, nearly 4,200 were closed to in-person learning by midweek, according to the data-tracking site Burbio.

President Joe Biden has stressed the importance of keeping schools open for in-person learning. The White House yesterday announced a monthly supply of five million rapid tests and five million lab-based PCR tests that schools can use for test-to-stay programmes intended to lessen disruptions.

The absences leave teachers wrestling with whether to forge ahead with lessons and how to help students left behind.