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Canceled buses and a superintendent in the classroom: How omicron has thrown schools into crisis

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Meghan McCoy intended to send her child back to school in January, but as she watched coronavirus cases surge in Salem, N.H., she changed her mind — joining a slew of parents across the nation keeping their children home.

“We can’t in good conscience send them back when the spread is so high,” she said.

School districts across the country saw higher-than-usual absences among students in the first week back from winter break. Many had sick children, while others, like McCoy, decided it was too risky to let their children attend.

Students were not the only ones absent. Large numbers of teachers, counselors, bus drivers and school resource officers were also out — leading to some unusual solutions. In Miami, the superintendent said coaches and administration staff with teaching credentials — including himself — stepped in to fill in for absent teachers. Elsewhere, bus routes were canceled. A handful of schools closed or went remote after not being able to find enough instructors.

“We’re in the third school year that’s affected by this pandemic and it’s having a serious impact,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association.

‘A monumental task’: Schools grapple with how to stay open amid omicron surge

The rate of absenteeism varied considerably from school to school and district to district starting Monday — the first day back in class — with those in areas with high infection rates and low vaccination numbers the hardest hit, Domenech said. In areas where vaccination rates are high and infection rates low, “those places are back to school in person without much problem,” he said.

In Rochester, N.Y., about 40 percent of students were absent from classrooms in the school district Monday. At a middle school on Long Island, the student absentee rate was 26 percent at the start of the week and had climbed to 35 percent by Wednesday. And an elementary school in Portland, Ore., planned to close for the day Friday due to “excessive staff and student absences and not enough substitutes available,” administrators wrote on Twitter.

“So, does this mean it will be closed next week too?” one dad wrote in response.

“We don’t know yet,” the school replied.

In Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, roughly 16 percent — or 16,500 of the approximate 102,000 enrolled students — were absent Monday, and although more students started showing up by midweek, the overall trend has continued, said Barry Perez, executive director of communications for the district.

“We certainly anticipated that the first day back, we would see an impact on attendance, and that’s not necessarily uncommon,” he said. “But what we saw on that day was a really unusually high number of both staff and student absences.”

Education experts say most of the absences are illness-related, but that isn’t the case for everyone.

McCoy, 40, said that although her 10-year-old is vaccinated, she plans to keep her child out of the classroom until the omicron variant has peaked and starts to drop off. She said she is immunocompromised and suffers from a chronic condition with symptoms similar to those with long-haul covid-19, and worries about her child contracting the virus and potentially suffering long-term consequences similar to hers.

“It’s frustrating because you see a lot of the experts on TV saying schools are important, schools should be open. And that’s true. I completely support that. But nobody is doing the things necessary to have that happen, which is to lower community spread,” she said. “We still have sporting events and we still have bars and restaurants open. For some reason, we just keep everything open until things get so desperate that schools are forced to close because they don’t have the staff to staff them because all the staff is out sick.”

Opinion: My kids are not okay. Canceling school is not sustainable — or responsible.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, there is a growing consensus among federal, state and school leaders that classrooms should stay open. Districts have enacted new protocols amid the omicron surge aimed at limiting virus spread by ramping up testing. But as schools reopen after the holidays, they are finding a multitude of challenges.

The week before the new semester, more than 900 public schools were preparing to close for at least one day during the first week of January, according to numbers from Burbio, a data company that tracks school closures in the U.S. Although it was a relatively small number, by the end of the first week, more than 5,000 schools had closed for in-person learning.

Outside of Chicago, where broader labor issues were involved, these closings occurred “with very little notice” because of staffing issues, Burbio President Dennis Roche said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) condemned the Chicago Teachers Union on Jan. 4 after it voted to return to virtual teaching amid soaring omicron cases. (Video: ABC7 Chicago)

The teacher absences in states such as New York, Florida, Texas and Hawaii came on top of existing staff shortages. At Northside ISD in San Antonio, of about 13,000 total staff members, 1,260 were out Monday, and that number had climbed to 1,500 or so by midweek, Perez said. In San Francisco, nearly 900 teachers and aides called for a sickout Thursday, arguing that the school district had not put in place appropriate measures to protect them from the virus, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Perez said that 926 of the absent positions in Northside ISD on Monday required substitute teachers, but the district was able to fill only 58 percent of them, which was “problematic.”

“Just like any of our staff members, our substitutes are going through those same things themselves,” he said.

Even in Miami, where student absences were not much higher than this time last year, about 2,110 staffers were out at the start of this week — 777 more than after winter break in 2021, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. In addition, he said, the district had to do without about 90 bus drivers and 43 school resource officers.

“Students are being supervised, are being taught, but obviously there is ongoing stress on our workforce as a result of these coronavirus conditions,” Carvalho said.

Carvalho himself taught a ninth-grade environmental science class at Miami Jackson Senior High School, where he started teaching more than 30 years ago.

“I thought it was important during this critical time when we have a lot of teachers out for very obvious reasons to both symbolically but also realistically step in and fill their shoes,” said Carvalho, who will soon take over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Domenech, who represents school superintendents, said he is hopeful things will level out within the next couple weeks.

“But here’s what concerns all of my members: What happens when the next variant comes up?” he said. “And what’s the issue going to be there? Is this going to be a temporary lull until the next variant comes out and then we’ll go through the same type of experience?”

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