Phoenix Union superintendent: All hands on deck to keep in-person learning amid staff shortage
PHOENIX — A labor crisis compounded by the spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant is proving a tough task to keep in-person learning going at the Phoenix Union High School District, Superintendent Chad Gestson said Thursday.
“Even before COVID, we were facing a labor crisis and today with omicron it’s been tougher than ever,” Gestson told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Gaydos and Chad. “We are fortunate here, we have nearly 4,000 employees and they agree we should do everything we can to stay in school and in-person learning but it’s requiring literally all hands on deck.”
Gestson said administrators and classified employees who are certified to teach are substituting in classrooms to help cover the shortage.
“Anybody that can get into classrooms to help us keep schools open is stepping up but I can tell you it gets tougher every day.”
The district has yet to revert to online learning this school year. Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, spread of the virus caused schools to shutter. This time, Gestson said there’s nearly unanimous support among staff that it’s not about the spread of COVID-19 but rather staff shortages that could send students back home.
Executive staff and principals of the district’s 22 schools have said a 20-25% employee absence rate may cause a school to close, according to Gestson.
“We can still keep school open with mitigation strategies if we have enough staff,” Gestson said, saying the district is aware of the high transmission of the virus in the communities it serves.
“At some point, the question becomes do you put 200 kids in an auditorium just to keep school open or do you move to remote learning and focus on learning quality. That’s the crossroads and the challenging decision we have right now.”
He said the district has procedures in place to help aid the situation, including running vaccine events and expanding testing opportunities at the schools, requiring masks indoors and limiting large gatherings.
“Trying to be smart and have one major focus and that’s keep our people healthy and keep in-person learning if possible.”
Arizona may reach its omicron peak in the next couple of weeks with a potentially steep decline in cases soon after like what has been seen in other states and countries.
Gestson said the district is hopeful they can keep up the sprint for the next two to three weeks.
“It’s virtually unbearable when administrators are subbing all day and working all night, and likewise for employees,” he said. “Educators are tired, they were tired before we came back this semester. They are tired today.”