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Q & A: After months of staff shortages & COVID cases at CMSD, teachers union says ‘We’re exhausted'

A substitute teacher shortage and the pandemic is leaving teachers "exhausted" at CMSD, according to union president Shari Obrenski. [Jenny Hamel / Ideastream Public Media]
CMSD school bus with students disembarking.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District closed 14 of its schools Friday because of staff shortages due to illness. Another three schools have been in remote learning since earlier this week for the same reason. The district is now on winter break. 

Ideastream Public Media’s Jenny Hamel spoke with Shari Obrenski, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, earlier this week about CMSD’s staffing shortages due to COVID-19, and the toll it’s taken on students and staff.

Obrenski: Especially more recently, we're seeing probably more cases of COVID than we've ever seen. With all of the cases that we're having amongst staff and the severe shortage that we have of subs in every area, it's very difficult to cover all of the absences.

You have lots of teachers who were having to, not have lunch, not have planning, take a half of a class or a whole nother full class, in order to make sure that the students are supervised and educated throughout the course of the day. And it's exhausting, and I've never seen our folks so tired. 

Tell me more about how severe this staff shortage is.  Why aren’t there enough teachers?

The shorter answer as to why there aren't enough teachers is because we really do not have enough don’t have enough substitutes, er we don't  have enough substitutes that are picking up positions. So, we have over 700 substitutes that are on our rolls. On any given day, less than 300 subs pick up. We have over 100 worksites. So even if you have one person absent in every building, that's 100 subs that you need. The reality is, that you're going to often have places that need more than one sub.  And in places where you have, you know, multiple staff that are out ill, there just aren't enough subs to cover that. 

Why aren’t substitute teachers picking up these shifts?

We've been surveying ourselves who are not picking up jobs to find out why. Definitely COVID is at the top of the list. And also, not feeling secure around having health care benefits or having access to COVID leave. If you're a substitute and you come into a building, or let's say you're a substitute and you catch COVID, then you can't come to work for 10 days. But if you haven't been in the district for a fairly long length of time in the same position, then currently you are not eligible for health care benefits, nor are you eligible for COVID-leave. So, you're home sick and you don't have health care. 

I can only imagine how difficult this is for teachers this year.  What’s been the emotional toll on the teachers, and the students and the rest of the staff?

First of all, it is mentally taxing to be on the front lines. These are folks who are in-person all day, every day. If you're in an elementary school, 20 to 30+ children, most of whom are not vaccinated . So, that's mentally taxing to be in a situation where you feel vulnerable. And I think our students and staff all feel vulnerable.

Whether you're an administrator, a teacher, a bus driver, a cafeteria worker or a student, it's all exhausting because it is so stressful and because there just isn't enough. And it makes it very difficult. And we also thought, quite frankly, that this year was going to be more normal, and it's just anything but. This actually feels worse than what we were dealing with last year, and I didn't think that was possible.

Looking ahead, do you see any relief in sight? Or are you thinking, ‘I guess we have to get through to the end of the school year’?

I think absolutely everyone from top to bottom is looking forward to winter break. I think it's a break that everyone desperately needs, and I hope that, you know, when we come back in the new year and with the new mayor coming into office with new ideas and new energy that perhaps we will be able to get to work on some of these, some of these issues that could potentially help us get through this this pandemic and and get back to a more normal existence.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”