More than half a million public and private school teachers in the U.S. are in the most at-risk age range for COVID-19, and in the fall, many teachers may not be able to return to the classroom due to the risk of contracting the coronavirus, according to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). At the same time, the extended school closures caused by COVID-19 may endanger the jobs of half of all school employees who are not teachers.

“School board members and other public school leaders have managed a herculean task to serve students during the pandemic,” Anna Maria Chávez, Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), remarked in a recent national coalition proposed by the National Labor Management Partnership (NLMP).

Research suggests that “COVID-19 is creating a school personnel crisis.” The New York City Department of Education (NYDOE) said that as of May 11, 2020, 70 NYDOE employees who were based in schools across the city died of COVID-19, and among them, 30 were teachers, 28 paraprofessionals, two food service staffers, two administrators, two facilities staff, two school aides, two guidance counselors, one parent coordinator, and one School Computer Technology Specialist. The loss is unprecedented.

Every school employee, both in teaching and non-teaching positions, is an asset to our school system. For school leaders, protecting staff from contracting the coronavirus is as important as ensuring the health and safety of every student, particularly at this extraordinary juncture. As states and school districts are facing different circumstances across the country, data about school personnel become critical for school leaders to seek creative solutions to meet challenges brought about by the pandemic.

The most at-risk age range for COVID-19

“Older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported. The data from the CDC show that rates of hospitalization for COVID-19 increase with age. For the age group 50-64, hospitalization per 100,000 population is 7.4, two times higher than that of the group 18-49 (2.5/100,000 population).

Based on the CDC information, teachers and other staff ages 50 years and over might be considered as the most at-risk age range for COVID-19, compared with other age groups in the population of school personnel. Researchers suggest that using data about teachers by age, school leaders can assess the scope of the potential population of teachers who are in the most vulnerable demographics to COVID-19.

International Data about Teachers by Age

Data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that in some countries, about 40 to 60 percent of primary and secondary teachers are in the most at-risk age range for COVID-19 (i.e. 50 years and older), whereas in the other countries, the percentage is 15 to 30 percent (Figure 1). For instance, among primary and secondary teachers,

  • 6 out of 10 are in the most at-risk age range in Italy, where per 1 million population, there were 3,717 COVID-19 cases and 525 deaths of COVID-19;
  • 4 out of 10 are in the most at-risk age range in Spain, where per 1 million population, there were 5,940 COVID-19 cases and 591 deaths of COVID-19; and
  • 3 out of 10 are in the most at-risk age range in the U.S., where per 1 million population, there were 4,590 COVID-19 cases and 272 deaths of COVID-19. 

(Note: The data about COVID-19 is the latest as of May 17, 2020.)

Figure 1. Percentage of primary/secondary teachers ages 50 years and over, by country: 2017

Percentage of primary/secondary teachers ages 50 years and over, by country: 2017
Source: OECD, https://data.oecd.org/teachers/teachers-by-age.htm

The data indicate that protecting the vulnerable population from contracting COVID-19 has become an international challenge, and without a vaccine or an effective medical treatment, it will be difficult for the full range of school personnel to return for work in the near future. So, how do countries in the world protect teachers and students from contracting the coronavirus?

  • In South Korea, students and teachers will have to wear a mask except during mealtimes, wipe their desks, and maintain social distance as they move around (Reuters, 5/4/2020).
  • In Denmark, teachers move classes outdoors, such as in parks (ABC News, 5/17/2020).
  • In New South Wales, Australia’s biggest state, teachers provide students with in-person instruction one day a week and for the rest of the week, students learn from home (ABC Australia, 4/26/2020).
  • A high school in Neustrelitz, in northern Germany, has students self-administer COVID-19 tests twice a week, and if they test positive, they stay home for two weeks; if they test negative, they wear a green sticker (The New York Times, 5/10/2020).
  • In Norway, to encourage social distancing, the government has urged schools to divide classes into groups of no more than 15 and have children wash their desks daily (World Economic Forum, 5/2/2020). 

U.S. Data about Teachers and Principals by Age

Two data sources can help school leaders to assess the scope of the potential population of teachers and principals in the at-risk age range for COVID-19 in the United States. Using the CDC COVID Data Tracker, we can trace the latest number of COVID-19 cases by state. By adding the second dimension – data from the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), we can see the percentage of school personnel ages 55 years and over (Figure 2).

In states with more COVID-19 cases, the potential populations in the most at-risk age range (if we use ages 55 and over) are –

  • 15% teachers and 26% principals in New York;
  • 20% teachers and 26% principals in New Jersey;
  • 19% teachers and 28% principals in Massachusetts;
  • 24% teachers and 34% principals in Rhode Island; and
  • 20% teachers and 28% principals in Connecticut.

In Maine and New Mexico, while the COVID-19 case rate has been relatively low, the potential population of public-school teachers in the most at-risk range is as high as 25 percent or greater. The same situation can be found in Hawaii, where 45 percent of principals are age 55 or older.

Figure 2. COVID-19 Case Rate Per 100,000 Population & Percentage of Public-School Teachers Ages 55 and over, by State

COVID-19 Case Rate Per 100,000 Population & Percentage of Public-School Teachers Ages 55 and over, by State

Note: The teacher data for Maryland and the District of Columbia are not available. Data source: CDC updated on May 14, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/, and https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/covid-19-is-creating-a-school-personnel-crisis/

The NCES data released in May 2020 reveal that in public elementary and secondary schools, the number of teachers ages 60 and over have dramatically increased since 1999. Between 2000 and 2018, elementary teachers of this age range increased from 3.2 percent to 6.6 percent, and secondary teachers of this age range increased from 2.9 percent to 8.3 percent. If we use ages 60 and over as the most at-risk age range for COVID-19 for teachers, the total number of the population in public elementary and secondary schools is 263,000.

The data demonstrates that the potential population of teachers in the most at-risk age range for COVID-19 is distributed disproportionately across the country. This fact suggests that no solution to protecting both teachers and students can be “one size fits all.” As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained, situations regarding school are very different in one region versus another, and it is impossible to have a universal, homogeneous approach.

In a new tool provided by the CDC for school reopening, it is recommended that schools prepare to protect children and employees at higher risk for severe illness before considering opening. The tool states schools should be able to screen students and employees upon arrival for symptoms and history of exposure. Other strategies some states are using to protect both teachers and students from contracting COVID-19 include:

  • The governor of Colorado stated that his state would use a "hybrid" model of in-class and at-home learning, an instructional model commonly referred to as blended learning.
  • The governor of Ohio asked school leaders in his state to come up with very specific but unique plans to ensure social distancing and student safety.
  • The Missouri School Boards Association shared some suggested best practices. For instance, teachers are recommended to use outside entry doors as much as possible to guide students when moving between classrooms and facilities such as gym, field trips, and multipurpose rooms.

U.S. Data about the “Hidden Half”

Approximately 51 percent of school personnel are non-teaching employees, according to data from the NCES. These non-teaching school staff are often described as the “hidden half.” Although their roles are non-instructional and behind the scenes, they provide essential services. Cafeteria workers feed students; guidance counselors work with students to help them plan their future; teacher aides provide one-on-one services in the classroom to students who require it.

As shown in Table 1, non-instructional staff in cities (i.e. Territory inside an Urbanized Area and inside a Principal City), like teachers, work with more students than their peers in rural areas. On average,

  • One instructional aide is responsible for 75 students in cities, as opposed to 56 students in towns (i.e. Territory inside an Urban Cluster that has some distance from an Urbanized Area).
  • More than 1,400 students share one librarian in cities, compared with 900 students in rural areas and 1,000 students in towns.
  • One library support staff member works with nearly 3,000 students in cities, which is more than double the number of students in towns or rural areas.

Table 1. Pupil/staff ratios in public elementary and secondary school systems, by type of assignment and locale: Fall 2016

Pupil/staff ratios in public elementary and secondary school systems, by type of assignment and locale
Note: The definitions of City, Suburban, Town and Rural can be retrieved in the NCES Locale Classifications and Criteria. Data source: U.S. Department of Education, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_213.60.asp

Data suggests that schools in urban and rural areas have different staffing patterns, likely based on their conditions, circumstances, and students’ needs. As the coronavirus spread widely, 47 states decided to extend their statewide school closures through the remainder of the school year. With most students learning from home, school employees - such as bus drivers, building custodians, classroom aides, and school psychologists - have been sidelined.

The dilemma for the “hidden half” is not only safety concerns, but also economic concerns. With the extension of school closures, research suggests that “Not all of them know whether they’ll be paid in the days ahead, and when schools reopen, it’s likely that many won’t have jobs to return to.” How can school districts help school staff keep their jobs?

  • At the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas, district leaders have identified tasks that employees can do without risking exposure to the virus and staying in compliance with the federal government’s social-distancing guidelines. For example, the grounds crews are still working and mowing, but they are outside, not in a confined space, usually working by themselves, not close to anybody.
  • In Washington State, school leaders brainstormed in search for ideas for “other types of meaningful work that staff can complete, within obviously their physical abilities.” Bus drivers can transport school meals; athletic coaches can maintain fields; and tech staffers can provide training on electronic communication platforms. 

Although school districts across the country are scrambling to find work for non-teacher employees, the solution is short-term. School districts need to support the “hidden half” in the long run. While it is important to secure federal and state funding for schools in the coming school year, districts should consider providing appropriate resources for school staff to advance their skills and credentials.

  • States such as California have created grant programs to facilitate the promotion of support staff — who are generally more likely to be non-white and less likely to hold advanced degrees — into teaching roles.
  • Some librarians have successfully transitioned into roles as research and media specialists, relying on IT tools that will allow them to thrive during our nationwide experiment with virtual teaching.

What data-related issues may school leaders want to consider?

U.S. data shows that at least 7.4 percent of teachers ages 60 and over may fall into the most at-risk age range for COVID-19. Researchers find that children and young adults can be asymptomatic, which suggests that when schools reopen, vulnerable school personnel may need to stay home for their protection. On the other hand, school funding heavily depends on state and local revenues which are in a steep decline due to the crisis. As Matthew Richmond – a school finance analyst who wrote a report “The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach” (2014) – observed, “Unless the federal government steps in in a way that’s truly extraordinary in terms of the funding provided to states, there will certainly be cuts.”

Facing such a school personnel crisis created by COVID-19, district leaders may want to consider the following data-related issues:

  • School districts should have accurate and adequate data about school personnel and may survey teachers and personnel about their safety and economic concerns.
  • School districts need data about teachers and personnel who may be unable to come to work, which will help school leaders to determine whether schools will face severe staffing challenges resulting from personnel who have to stay at home due to public health officials’ guidance or because they simply do not feel safe coming to school.
  • School districts should establish profiles for non-teaching personnel for understanding everyone’s capacity and considering reassigning some staff to new roles. In the long run, the profiles can be used to support employees’ professional development. 

As a resource, a document - Collaborating in a Crisis: Working Together to Safely Reopen Our School Buildings – has been created by the NLMP, a coalition that includes the NSBA and other organizations such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, AASA - The School Superintendents' Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers. To safely reopen our school buildings, school leaders need to work closely with all educators and stakeholders. To make sound policies, school leaders also need data to develop strategies that not only protect students and school staff, but also prepare for various contingencies and scenarios, including identifying new roles for employees and streamlining the pipeline to find additional staff who can backfill for those who have to stay at home.

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