After deciding to begin the year virtually, the Pottsgrove School District considered its staff: Did it need building aides, part-time nurses, hall monitors?
The district, in western Montgomery County, determined it didn’t. It furloughed 39 people — and cut its school resource officers, crossing guards, and security contractors.
As districts around the Philadelphia region prepare for virtual instruction this fall, some have taken steps to pare their workforces, authorizing furloughs of support staff whose positions are deemed no longer necessary under remote reopenings.
In the spring, Pennsylvania required that public schools pay staffs through the end of the school year despite the coronavirus closures. No such mandate exists heading into the fall.
“We’ve been advised legally that we’re not allowed to pay people for not working,” said Dan Nerelli, superintendent of the Chichester School District, which is considering furloughing bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other staff. Bus drivers in the Delaware County district protested last week, Nerelli said, and “there are some people who are unhappy, saying if you budgeted for it, pay them anyway.”
But school officials have also faced pressure from taxpayers who question why spending should remain the same under a virtual model.
And costs in other areas have increased due to the pandemic. Chichester — which has an $82 million budget — spent the $700,000 it received from the federal CARES Act on technology for students and teachers. But the district, which aims for in-person instruction in November, also has to buy personal protective equipment and sanitizer.
That’s “another reason we can’t be paying people who aren’t working,” Nerelli said. “We haven’t accounted for those costs.” Like others still evaluating their staffing levels, Nerelli said he didn’t know how much money the district might save.
Pottsgrove spokesperson Gary DeRenzo said the district, which has a $68 million budget, would save $34,250 a month from support staff furloughs, an additional $15,500 a month by cutting two school resource officer positions, and $3,600 a month in expenses for security guards at the high school.
Union representatives say school districts could be using staff members in other roles rather than removing them from the payroll.
That’s what happened in Upper Darby, according to Denise Kennedy, a district secretary and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s southeastern educational support professionals division.
“We worked with the district and said, ‘Why would you try to lay some of these people off or furlough, when if you think outside the box you can use them in a different way … to still educate the whole student?’ ” she said.
Kennedy said Upper Darby isn’t furloughing any workers and is instead reassigning staff. Some assistants, for instance, will be staffing a district program supervising children of essential workers — to “help them get online, make sure they have what they need” to do their schoolwork, Kennedy said.
“It just troubles me that other districts aren’t able to do this,” Kennedy said. “I get that they have the concern of the taxpayers. Our district has the same thing.” But support staff can still play roles, she said — noting that when schools closed in the spring, she made videos of herself reading books aloud that were shared with students, and that staff continued to record morning announcements.
Upper Darby Superintendent Dan McGarry said the district was being “as creative as we can” to reallocate staff. “We have plenty of work that needs to be done for reopening schools,” McGarry said. The district plans to reevaluate in late September whether it can offer in-person learning, and “it would be very, very difficult to pivot quickly ... if we didn’t have all of our people.”
Leaders in some districts say there isn’t necessarily work for all staff they employed before the pandemic forced virtual learning.
“We can’t make up fake jobs for people,” said Marc Bertrando, superintendent in the Garnet Valley district, where the board recently authorized furloughs. The Delaware County district is still evaluating its staffing.
Like others, Bertrando said there was risk in furloughing workers while aiming to reopen schools later this fall. “We want to be able to quickly get those people back to work,” he said, adding that bus drivers in particular “are hard to replace as it is.”
Not all bus drivers are losing their runs, as some districts that aren’t opening in person are still transporting students to private or charter schools.
Still, “there’s just not enough schools open to meet the supply and demand for the bus drivers,” said Fred Chazin, president of the union representing bus drivers and aides in the Rose Tree Media district. About half of its 75 members have been furloughed, according to Chazin.
He said the union successfully advocated for bus drivers whose runs are being scaled back to keep their health care, calling an original proposal to rescind coverage “kind of chintzy.”
Drivers “are doing part of their run. This is a pandemic,” Chazin said.
In Norristown, where 90 support staff will be furloughed starting Oct. 1, Superintendent Christopher Dormer said the district will be continuing health-care benefits for those staffers — in part to boost the chances of them returning when schools reopen, tentatively in January.
“We have no intention of this being a permanent reduction in force,” Dormer said. He said the district couldn’t bring certain staff members in safely — cafeteria workers, for instance, couldn’t do their jobs and remain six feet apart — and didn’t have enough work for others. “They’re going to be better off collecting unemployment.”