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'Overwhelmed': CPS teachers struggle with record COVID rates and in-person learning

Students pack like sardines into classes that aren’t their own because their teachers are quarantining at home, recovering from COVID-19 or caring for their own sick children.

Teachers at school feel their stomachs churn when yet another student is pulled into the nurse’s office.

Substitute shortages add extra responsibilities to school staff, who scramble to cover supervision of COVID-separated students in cafeterias and gyms.

This is the picture painted by dozens of anonymous Columbia Public Schools teachers in an email sent to the Missourian. The quotes depict the daily struggles of in-person learning as COVID-19 numbers break new records with each passing week.

“We’re just not able to keep up,” said Noelle Gilzow, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association and a teacher at Hickman High School. “There are so many cases that the people who are responsible for both student safety and learning are overwhelmed. We’re not getting the information we need to be able to enforce policies and procedures.”

This is the first time in-person learning protocols have had to endure record-breaking levels of infection. Last Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each snagged the top four spots for the highest number of positive COVID-19 test results in one day for MU Health Care. On Monday, a total of 101 new, positive cases were reported in the district’s, according to the COVID-19 dashboard. On Wednesday, 410 students were quarantining or isolating.

The previous record number for positive cases in one day was Nov. 10, 2020.

“It feels like 2020-2021 all over again,” one comment said. “But now we are also dealing with added responsibilities and decreased district support. Every day I go to work with the very real risk of getting sick.”

The comments from the teachers were provided to the Missourian anonymously because those who spoke out said they feared for their jobs if they were quoted criticizing the district.

District spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said in an email to the Missourian that the district evaluates its ability to operate on a daily basis, and schools haven’t reached the point where they’d consider districtwide shifts.

“Make no mistake, we are stressed,” Baumstark said. “Our systems are stressed, but we are not currently, at this moment in time, at the point where we cannot operate.”

Baumstark said, “As numbers continue to rise with the current rapid spread of omicron, we will consider temporary changes in mitigation strategies or changes in learning modes both as outlined in our COVID plan.”

Many of the teachers’ comments cited feelings of overwhelming exhaustion, fear and burnout less than two weeks into the semester, which started Jan. 4.

The comments also cited difficulties complying with policies and procedures because of student and parent noncompliance and staff shortages.

Gilzow said so many teachers are being affected — “either testing positive or becoming sick — that our classrooms are being covered by subs, other teachers on their plan periods, or other administrators from the building who aren’t teachers — just to have somebody in the room with students.”

The district’s substitute fulfillment rate — the number of subs working versus the number of subs needed — fell to 43.9% for teachers as of Monday, the lowest reported number since at least September 2020. The figure for staff is much lower, at 15.3%.

One comment put it this way: “Teacher A has to take an additional 10-14 students in their room for absent teacher B, making it excessively crowded. Of course, teacher B has COVID and wasn’t wearing their mask at school and neither were teacher B’s students.

“So now not only does teacher A have to teach a class and a half in a small room, but they are exposed all day long (in a room where no social distancing is possible) to teacher B’s students who are close contacts. Teacher A cannot require any of those students, who are sardined in the classroom, to wear a mask.”

Another comment questioned “what is it all for?” Many said their students aren’t able to reap the benefits of in-person learning with daily COVID-19 related disruptions and without regular lessons from their teachers.

“This is not how we build relationships with students, this is how we build anxiety, stress, and a lack of motivation,” another comment said.

“Instruction is not what it should be,” Gilzow said. “Our first concerns are the safety and quality education of our students. We feel like both have been compromised.”

The Columbia School Board voted in December to end the district’s mask mandate effective Jan. 4 after one had been in place for the fall semester.

A petition urging the board to reconsider its December decision has garnered more than 2,500 signatures. Columbia Missouri National Education Association conducted a survey of its teachers, and the results showed a preference for a mask mandate. However, the school board did not include any items related to COVID-19 protocols on the January meeting’s agenda. Superintendent Brian Yearwood emailed district stakeholders urging masks in the face of a spike in COVID-19. The district’s current COVID-19 plan gives the superintendent power to impose a districtwide mask mandate.

Wednesday also marks the third day in a row that dozens of Hickman High School students protested in support of reinstating a mask mandate. Students at other schools signaled their intentions to start similar protests in the coming days on social media.

Gilzow said she believed breaking the cycle of transmission would take either returning to virtual learning or reinstating a mask mandate.

“Current policies and procedures, though well-intentioned, are not meeting our needs right now, just because there are so many cases.”

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.