Winter woes: Day schools struggle through staff shortages and sickness
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COVID-19Day schools defy Omicron shortages

Winter woes: Day schools struggle through staff shortages and sickness

“It’s been a rolling basis, so some are in, others cycle out,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a conveyor belt.”

Community Day School (Photo by David Rullo)
Community Day School (Photo by David Rullo)

Even attempting to schedule a time to speak with Jewish day school representatives is indicative of the widespread staff shortages they now face.

When asked if she would be available to discuss the shortages at Community Day School, Jennifer Bails, the school’s director of marketing and communications, confirmed the time before joking, “If I’m not cleaning bathrooms.”

Rabbi Sam Weinberg, the principal of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, rescheduled his interview with the Chronicle because he was assisting in the kindergarten room.

Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, head of school and CEO of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, said his staff is splitting time between the school’s various buildings and dorms.

“We’re all hands on deck,” he said. “We’re all in classes, we’re all supervising. We move people around as necessary.”
All three day school spokespeople were quick to note it’s the teachers, support staff and parents who have endured the brunt of the pivots needed during this second year of COVID-19.

“They’re managing their stress, their families,” Bails said. “They’re managing the stress of knowing that kids who they care about and love and nurture every day are catching the virus. And they are doing their job under circumstances that are less than ideal with grace and professionalism.”

Weinberg noted that teachers at Hillel Academy have done the work of two or three people and filled in wherever necessary.
“But you know, it’s been a nice atmosphere,” he said. “There’s been a lot of teamwork.”

Weinberg said he sent an email to parents seeking volunteers with updated clearances to help as substitute teachers.

“Parents are coming in — we’ve had a few parents that took me up on it,” he said.

CDS had several teachers out over the last week, Bails said.

“It’s been a rolling basis, so some are in, others cycle out,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a conveyor belt.”

Yeshiva Schools has been averaging 10-12 staff members out each day, according to Rosenblum. Some days, the number climbed to 15 staff absences. In a typical year, he said, the school might have two staff members out on any given day due to illness.

Yeshiva has kept school open and in-person, with the exception of its boys and girls high schools, which are now online, Rosenblum said.

“The reason for that is because we have a lot of out-of-town students, and we have midwinter vacation,” he said. “We tried to get them home before it started.”

Hillel Academy is on winter break. Weinberg said he hopes when vacation ends, the omicron peak will have passed, and staff levels will go back to the new normal.

At CDS, however, classes are back in session, and teachers and staff are working to manage a resurgent virus.

“When we came back from winter break, we were hit with a high number of cases reported,” Bails said. “At that point those people hadn’t been in the building yet, so we had room to figure out how to adapt, how to understand the new CDC guidelines and what those mean for our community and how we were going to navigate in this new reality that we’re suddenly all in.”

A school requires more than students, parents, teachers and administrative staff to operate. Nurses, maintenance workers, cafeteria staff, security personnel and others are also necessary to keep a school open.

“We were a little shaky early in December,” Weinberg said of Hillel Academy’s support staff. “Since then, staff has been there.”

Rosenblum devotes time every day to ensure that all of the needs at Yeshiva are covered, he said.

“The administration meets every single night and for hours on Sunday, moving people around,” he said. “And now we have a couple of admins out.”

Officials at all three schools said they were grateful that parents are understanding of the shifts in staff and programming.
What is happening in Pittsburgh day schools isn’t unique, Rosenblum said, but is taking place across the country.

“It’s no longer a question of a school’s medical policies,” he said. “It’s a question of staff. Teachers are sick, kids are sick, parents have to watch their kids. It’s not even a matter of quarantining. It’s just a matter of staff — you can’t have a school without them.”

And while he has no solid evidence, anecdotally Rosenblum thinks things might start getting better over the next few weeks.
Bails, too, predicts an imminent end to staff shortages.

CDS is nearing 100% vaccination for both age-eligible students and staff, Bails said, which “provides a level of safety for our community and another level of protection that provides a lot of reassurance for family members.”

The staff shortages have been hard on everyone, Weinberg said, but he praised the teachers and staff.

“They’re the real heroes in this situation,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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