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The Ann Arbor Public Schools district is in trouble. Within the past few weeks, AAPS has canceled in-person school three times. On Oct. 22, three schools went remote. Five days later, it was one school. The most recent closure, on Nov. 1, affected every school in the district.

Naturally, parents were upset. For working parents, the need to find emergency child care is an exceptional burden. AAPS discontinued their before and after-school care program this year, and the cost of private childcare has risen dramatically as providers attempt to recoup losses from the pandemic. 

Following the announcement about the Nov. 1 closure, parents took to Twitter and an AAPS school board meeting to voice their discontent. Many parents proposed solutions, such as raising substitute teachers’ pay, or opening cafeterias and gymnasiums up for group study halls if individual classrooms could not be staffed. Others raised concerns about teacher burnout, while still others took the time to contrast the empathetic messaging from their student’s principal with an email from Superintendent Jeanice K. Swift, which they considered glib.  

In a recent Daily article, LSA junior and AAPS parent Patrick Gallagher criticized the school board for not coming up with a plan to prevent the possibility of a staff shortage. He pointed to low wages for teachers and support staff as the primary factor driving the shortage, emphasizing that the pandemic is no longer new and that the administration should have been aware of the precarious hiring situation before the school year started. 

To gather additional comment on the closures, I reached out to lecturer Adam Stevenson. Stevenson is a lecturer of economics at the University, a parent of two children in AAPS and also teaches a class on the economics of education. 

When asked about his reactions to the closures as a parent, Stevenson groaned. He did not enjoy telling his middle schooler at 9:40 p.m. on Oct. 21 — while saying good night to her — that she would not be going to school in the morning. Her reaction to the news: a plaintive “I’m not going to see my friends!” 

Stevenson distinguished the difference between the systemic issues facing teachers and the acute problems facing AAPS. Systemically, he argues “it’s definitely true that hiring is becoming difficult across many industries — most industries — and so wages are rising more rapidly than they have been, which makes it easier for people to quit a current job and opt-in to another job instead. And so to win that bidding war for workers, wages are going up, and by and large schools can’t do that because wages are determined by teacher union negotiations.” However, he asserted that he finds it “very difficult to believe that’s a particular explanation for what’s going on right now,” specifically in AAPS. In short, hiring enough full-time teachers is not the problem. Then what is?

Teacher absences. According to the school board’s data, the fill rate for staff absences oscillated between 51-65% throughout October. If teachers called out sick, or for any other reason, the district could not find an adequate number of substitutes to replace them. Without enough staff per student, guaranteeing safety became a concern, and closures became necessary. According to Stevenson, “the extent that the COVID crisis can explain (the absences) is that people who would’ve done substitutions are either unwilling to work under sort of risky circumstances or they’re getting better bids from someone else.” 

At the Oct. 27 school board meeting, that exact sentiment was raised by Amanda Bergren, a former teacher who often substituted while pursuing her teaching degree. She commented that the pay for substitute teachers — about $100/day — is exactly the same as it was when she was a substitute twenty years ago. She urged the board to raise the pay, adding that she would consider teaching again if the price for giving up her time were not so low. 

Talking with Stevenson helped me establish a couple of key points about the closures. First, raising teacher pay is a non-starter, and more importantly, not the likely culprit behind the closures. Salaries cannot be legally raised until next December, when the current labor contract expires. Teachers should be paid more — but that is a decades-long problem that cannot be resolved overnight. Second, the immediate issue for the district is recruiting more substitutes, and unfortunately, the district will likely fail to attract enough of them without a dramatic increase in pay. 

So, if raising teacher pay is not an option, and hiring enough substitutes is unlikely, how can AAPS prevent further closures? 

Increase the pay for substitutes. AAPS took a step in this direction by raising the wage from $130 to $150 on Mondays and Fridays, the days with the most absences. But that is not enough. An extra $20 might incentivize a middle schooler to mow their neighbor’s lawn, but it certainly would not motivate a working adult to dedicate their day to monitoring a classroom, especially when other jobs pay better. I should know. I worked in an after-school care facility my senior year of high school for $8.25/hr. Children are a joy in general, but not after they’ve jammed a tiara on your head or insulted the kind of car you drive. (A 2011 Chevy Malibu is not lame.) 

Jokes aside, the working environment faced by teachers during this crisis has been no laughing matter. Teachers, administrators and even the superintendent at one point have been giving up planning periods to help out in classrooms. Those sacrifices are made to fill in absences that substitutes should be covering. Closures happen when even that measure is not enough. The school district should consider that hiring enough substitutes means hiring enough so that teachers can have their planning periods back. 

The teachers must be exhausted from those working conditions. During my interview with Stevenson, he pointed out that according to the superintendent’s data, “absences ‘strangely’ spike on Mondays and Fridays, which is why (AAPS) keeps closing on those days.” One could surmise that the appeal of a long weekend might incentivize teachers to call out on those days; one could equally as well guess that teacher burnout is behind that trend. 

From a financial standpoint, AAPS should have no trouble paying their substitutes more. Their budget includes a general fund, which holds a projected balance of $13,460,743 for the current fiscal year. Although this is smaller than years past, it is not so small that the school could not responsibly draw more from the fund to increase pay. There are certainly no legal barriers against doing so. Superintendent Swift has the authority to adjust expenditures, as long as the board later approves the adjustments. 

And, from an economic perspective, taking from the fund for this purpose is rational. Think of the fund like an insurance policy. When times are good, taxpayers pay a yearly premium into the system (surplus tax revenues) so that when accidents happen (like a major labor shortage), you have the funds to cover your losses. Now is the time to file a claim. 

So, AAPS, pay your substitutes more. Your students, parents and teachers seek relief, which school closures definitely do not provide. It might hurt your pocketbook in the short run, but paying for necessary services is what a pocketbook is for. 

Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at alyee@umich.edu.