Niles Community Schools looks to move forward amid transportation staffing shortages

Published 8:33 am Thursday, January 20, 2022

NILES — School districts across the country are feeling the crunch when it comes to teacher and transportation shortages, and Niles Community Schools is no different.

Last week, the district was forced to transition to remote learning for two days due to a transportation staffing shortage. For Niles Community Schools Superintendent Dan Applegate, the need to go remote was not ideal but necessary.

“We tried to rework routes, but our transportation department was unable to do that,” Applegate said. “We wanted to maintain continuity with learning and try to minimize disruptions. That’s why we didn’t want to take two school-forgiven days, because we may need them early in the season. A decision like that was not made lightly. It’s important to have in-person learning for our students, and it puts a burden on our families and stress on teachers to make the transition, but there’s no way we could make transportation happen for those two days.”

While Applegate prefers in-person learning to remote, he acknowledged that the pandemic has forced the district to be more efficient with its technological capabilities.

“It makes us make transitions more efficient,” he said. “We’re utilizing technology more. Teachers are using interfaces where absent students can still log on. Some teachers are providing access to classrooms through video cameras, so absent students can chime in. It’s not yet available district-wide, but it’s something we want to pursue with our ESSER funds. That has been a way for students and teachers to stay connected with absences. We have our 1:1 technology program where students can obtain devices for learning. We have Wi-Fi internet access for families in need. We have infrastructure things to build to make this sustainable for the long term, but right now, we’re set and moving forward.”

Navigating the district through the pandemic has been a difficult task, but Applegate insists that it would not be possible if not for the parents.

“We’ve had a great partnership with our parents,” he said. “Not having students come in sick and monitoring the symptoms, which helps prevent the spread. The new virus is very transmittable so we continue to use our mitigation strategies, including cohorting students and eating lunch in classrooms, quarantining and handwashing.”

Applegate is happy that the district has been able to avoid having to go remote for long periods of time.
“We’ve done very well,” he said. “We were able to provide in-person instruction all of last year when many schools did not. We’ve been fortunate not to have to go remote a lot but there is a spike in cases in the community so we have to respond to that as well. Across the nation, state and county, there are teacher shortages. When you add COVID to it, you’re doubling down on the amount of staff who may be absent. We know in-person instruction is good for the mental health of our students and we need to provide that the best we can. That’s always our goal.”

When it comes to the district’s teachers and staff, Applegate could not be prouder of the way they have handled adversity to deliver a quality education to students.

“They have been absolutely phenomenal in keeping the focus on learning in that environment,” Applegate said. “Our kids are succeeding and doing great things and it’s thanks to our teachers and staff, especially in uncertain times. It’s stressful for them, but they’re not letting it show in the classroom.”

As the second semester unfolds, Applegate is optimistic about the future of the district.

“I’m looking forward to kids staying in school,” he said. “I’d like to provide students with the educational and extracurricular opportunities that they need to grow. I’m really hoping whatever is going on here in the community and county with illnesses settles down so we can regain a sense of normalcy”.