Tests and staffing: What it takes to keep schools open during omicron Schools are just starting to get regular access to testing; teachers are still paying out of pocket for masks and air purifiers; and qualified substitutes and bus drivers can be hard to find.

What it really takes to keep schools open during the omicron surge

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

And now we turn to how schools are handling the latest coronavirus surge. And what we're seeing is a rare moment of consensus. Political leaders as ideologically far apart as governors Ron DeSantis in Florida and Gavin Newsom in California are pledging to keep classrooms open as infection numbers climb. But NPR's Anya Kamenetz interviewed teachers and administrators from around the country who say they are battling shortages of tests, masks and, most importantly, staff.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: On Tuesday, President Biden told the country schools should have what they need to stay open.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We provided the states with $130 billion - with a B - billion dollars to specifically keep our students safe and schools open.

KAMENETZ: Kennita Ballard, who teaches middle school in Louisville, Ky., would like a word.

KENNITA BALLARD: There was talk about that every teacher, that every teacher in the district was given by our district N95 masks. We haven't seen those.

KAMENETZ: Her district says the masks started going out to schools this week. Up until now, Ballard's been buying her own KN95 masks. She likes pink ones.

WILLIAM BAUR: Easily, like, $200 to $300.

KAMENETZ: That's how much William Baur, who teaches high school science in Vancouver, Wash., state, estimates he has spent out of pocket on basic COVID safety equipment for his classroom. That includes air purifiers, hacked together using box fans.

BAUR: I want in-person to be as safe as possible, and so there's a lot of things I've done extra to make it that way.

KAMENETZ: Another crucial tool to keep kids in school right now is tests. These can be used for general screening and in test-to-stay programs, where students who are exposed to COVID can keep coming to class so long as they test negative. But both require a continuous supply of tests.

JOSEPH RICCA: We didn't have necessarily enough tests on hand to be able to implement the program.

KAMENETZ: Joseph Ricca is superintendent of schools in White Plains, N.Y., one of the best-funded public school districts in the country. He's grateful that over break the state of New York provided one test for each of his students, so they can now start doing tests to stay. For how long he doesn't know.

RICCA: We have orders in for more tests, as well, but, you know, the supply chain is strained.

BRITTANY GONZALEZ: I personally don't know that if I needed to do a test today, I could.

KAMENETZ: Brittany Gonzalez says where she teaches special education in Lee County, Fla., lines of testing sites are out the door. And Aaron Neimark, who teaches kindergarten in San Francisco, missed the first few days of school after winter break because he was waiting for a PCR test to come back. He says a lot of his colleagues were out, too.

AARON NEIMARK: It's about, like, eight or nine teachers with, like, only one substitute.

KAMENETZ: Speaking of substitutes, some schools and even districts are closing because they just don't have anyone available to cover classes, even if they have the money to pay them. Kentucky, where Kennita Ballard, teaches, passed a law earlier this year to address the teacher shortage by allowing teachers to come out of retirement and still keep their pensions. Other states, like New York, have relaxed certifications for substitutes. Still, Ballard says teaching is about more than warm bodies.

BALLARD: And it's also impacting learning. Like, we are not here to be babysitters, to make sure that they are eating and breathing. No.

KAMENETZ: She says the educational mission is getting lost. Ballard and other educators told NPR that they wish those calling for schools to stay open understood what it actually takes to teach in person in a pandemic.

BALLARD: If you're not on the front line in the classroom, you're not feeling the very physical way of what is happening as a result of COVID in the classroom.

RICCA: I see people on Twitter, you know, just open the schools, just open the schools.

KAMENETZ: Joseph Ricca, the superintendent in White Plains.

RICCA: Every teacher and every administrator and every parent wants to open the schools. But it's not just open schools. It's, are the schools safe? Are they staffed? Are the children coming? Do you have everything you need? And by the way, can I make mention that a lot of these just open proclamations are coming from folks who are comfortably seated in their own home?

KAMENETZ: Every day, Ricca sees the lingering detrimental effects of remote learning on his students academically, socially and emotionally. He's crossing his fingers that they won't have to go remote again.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

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