Why families are seeing more abrupt school closures School districts around the country have been announcing extra days off this fall to address staff shortages and mental health. For some families, the unpredictable schedule feels like a betrayal.

Parents are scrambling after schools suddenly cancel class over staffing and burnout

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This Thanksgiving week, school districts across the country are taking some extra days off. It's part of a national trend this fall of canceling classes not for COVID cases but because of staff shortages, burnout and mental health. And while some kids welcome the break, other families are angry about the lack of notice and even more lost learning time. NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Short notice school closures can leave families scrambling for child care.

MYRA SCHWARTZ: My mom was on the phone last night talking to my grandparents.

KAMENETZ: Myra Schwartz (ph) is a high school senior in Ann Arbor, Mich., with a 6-year-old brother. And with five days' notice, Ann Arbor Public Schools announced they would close for the full week of Thanksgiving because of staff shortages and a lack of substitute teachers. Schwartz's parents both work at the University of Michigan.

SCHWARTZ: How are my parents supposed to, like, find day care for him? I might end up babysitting him to be honest.

KAMENETZ: Burbio, which tracks school district websites, says closures not directly related to COVID quarantines are an accelerating trend this month. They've affected 858 districts so far. Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Brevard Public Schools in Florida and Chapel Hill, N.C., all have taken extra days off this week alone.

JANINE THORN: The lead factor was the staffing shortage.

KAMENETZ: Janine Thorn is a spokeswoman for the Bellevue School District in Washington state. Like districts around the country, they have dozens of unfilled openings, from food service to math teachers to psychologists. And with many staff putting in for paid time off the day after Veterans Day, there was no one left to cover classes.

THORN: I've got a son, yeah. My husband, you know, had to take off.

KAMENETZ: District leaders say that unfilled openings and absenteeism are also a symptom of a deeper problem - staff burnout. Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross in Ypsilanti, Mich., next door to Ann Arbor, said she was canceling classes this full Thanksgiving week because her staff has had it.

ALENA ZACHERY-ROSS: Staff members, the cooks, the custodians, the teachers and administrators all are feeling overwhelmed and fatigued.

ROBIN LAKE: What I want to raise is whether we can support teachers' mental health and keep kids in schools. I think we can.

KAMENETZ: Robin Lake directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She says in the third year of disrupted pandemic schooling, many students are behind grade level, needing special education services, in danger of failing out or dropping out. And they all need to be in person.

LAKE: I've heard from some veteran teachers who are pretty concerned about this trend. And they've said, look; I think we've gotten into this mode of every time things get hard, our answer is close school. That's really problematic.

KAMENETZ: Jennifer Raisman (ph) is a single mother of a daughter in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., and she works in health care in person. The district canceled the day before Thanksgiving, citing overworked staff and shortages. Raisman says, yes, it was just a half day, but it sent a bigger message.

JENNIFER RAISMAN: We all feel like we're witnessing the death of public education up close and personal because it's no longer become a public good and a public service. We can't count on it if this is what happens - you know, with literally almost no notice, school is just suddenly closed.

KAMENETZ: Myra Schwartz, the high school senior in Ann Arbor, says the closures are taking her back to March 2020.

SCHWARTZ: It feels like March 13 again. Are we going to come back here? Like, I can't do virtual again.

KAMENETZ: She says she'd really rather spend her time at school.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.


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