Potter Road Elementary School principal Larry Wolpe says the last two weeks have been like one giant game of Tetris. For a brief moment, he thought he had every classroom covered. But that didn't last long.
"As I was walking down the hall, a [fourth grade] teacher stopped me, told me she didn't feel well," explained Wolpe. "I decided I would go into her class, and I would cover her."
It was a last minute decision, but necessary. There was no one else who could step in on a recent Tuesday afternoon while the teacher left to get a COVID test. Luckily, the students in this Framingham classroom were excited about the arrangement. Most of them cheered when Wolpe broke the news.
"The struggle is real and it continues."Larry Wolpe, principal
Wolpe, who used to be a teacher, had some muscle memory for how to manage a class. But he still had some learning to do that day, like how indoor recess worked, and how the students should line up to move from the music room to their regular classroom.
"Show me what it looks like, fourth graders," Wolpe said to the class. "Let's do it!"
Soon enough, he was back in the swing of things and starting the day’s planned lesson on how Native American people adapted when they migrated somewhere new. That theme of adaptation and flexibility resonated with him, especially now.
Wolpe says for the most part, that attitude has been helping him and his staff get through the surge. But some days, it’s hard to stay positive.
At 6:12 on Thursday morning, Wolpe got more bad news.
"Sure enough, that first call came in from my assistant principals saying, 'Hey, somebody's not coming in, so we're officially short handed,' " he said, sounding exhausted in a recent audio diary. "The struggle is real and it continues."
Scenes like this are playing out all over the state. According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, more than 7,000 school staff and at least 40,000 students tested positive for COVID-19 between Jan. 6 and Jan. 13.
"It’s oddly kind of dystopian in the building," says Samantha Laney, a fifth grade teacher at the Holmes Innovation School in Boston. "The amount of people that are there is not a number that I would ever have predicted or imagined would even be possible to keep a school open with."
Many staff are out sick right now, Laney says, but so are students, which is another challenge to plan around.
"So if I have half of my students Monday through Wednesday, and then a new set of students comes in and other ones get sick, I now have to re-teach what we learned," she explained.
And it's not simply a matter of re-teaching one or two lesson plans. Kids leave and return to her classroom on different days, so they miss different elements of the class. And some kids haven’t gotten sick at all, which means they are hearing the same things multiple times.
Fellow Boston teacher Caitlin Gaffny says she and many of her colleagues are feeling pretty burnt out right now.
"It’s been very difficult on everyone," said Gaffny.
Gaffny stresses that she wants to be in the classroom, but she wishes districts had more flexibility to go remote, especially in the middle of a surge like this.
"I cannot fathom why we invested millions of dollars in Chromebooks and online learning platforms, but that remote remains not an option for our students in this state," she said.
Right now, remote learning is largely off the table for districts. Under state policy, remote instruction, for the most part, does not count as an official school day. Senior associate education commissioner Russell Johnston recently told WBUR there aren’t any immediate plans to relax that rule.
"At this time we continue to believe that in-person learning is the most effective way for students to receive the supports that they need, to make the progress they need academically, and to have the social emotional support that they need," explained Johnston. "So that's really where our focus is at this time."
For now, educators say they'll keep on plugging and doing the best they can to fill the gaps.
"Special education teachers and English as a second language teachers and paraprofessionals have been pulled out to cover for classroom teachers," explained Potter Road Elementary School's Larry Wolpe. These measures are helping to keep the school open, but there's also a down side, because when classrooms have fewer adults, student learning can suffer.
Wolpe and these other educators say they’re at the point where the only real solution they can hope for is that the surge passes soon.
This segment aired on January 18, 2022.