Omicron quarantines accentuate staffing shortages at Chatham County Schools

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PITTSBORO — By the end of the second week of class following winter break, Chatham County Schools counted 703 students and 68 staff members as absent from school due to either testing positive for COVID-19 or quarantining due to exposure, according to district data shared with the News + Record.

That week, Jan. 10-16, saw 197 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff, according to the district’s archived case dashboards, and one cluster at Horton Middle School. Still, with 10,500 people at CCS, that’s 1.9% of the population — a higher positive rate than at any previous point in the pandemic, but still much lower than the county’s overall positive rate, though that number counts from people tested, not the overall population. (In January, the rate of positive tests fluctuated between 20-30% in Chatham.)

Still, even with updated quarantine rules to minimize unnecessary school absences, exposed students and staff still usually have to miss classes for at least five days — and amid soaring Omicron trends following the holidays, that’s a lot of absences.

Such a large number of quarantines put a strain on school operations, intensifying the impact of pre-existing staffing shortages.

“While our community, like the rest of the state, continues to see numbers go up, our students and staff have followed safety protocols,” CCS Public Information Officer Nancy Wykle told the News + Record. “That has enabled us to remain in person and safeguard our school community as much as possible. While we are operating with reduced staffing, we have continued to ensure our students are learning, we are able to get them to and from school and lunches are provided.”

In light of such trends, the CCS Board of Education voted 3-1 to extend universal masking on all CCS campuses at its Jan. 11 mid-year retreat, with board member David Hamm again dissenting. (Board member Melissa Hlavac was absent for the vote.)

District administrators and local health officials have consistently followed public health guidance recommending that mask mandates remain in place until the county’s transmission rates fall below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggested levels. The county’s three public charter schools each also still have universal indoor masking policies in place.

According to the CDC and the state health department, schools should continue requiring universal masking in counties with higher levels of community transmission.

In Chatham as of Wednesday, there are 1,951.12 cases per 100,000 people and a 30.43% positive rate, according to CDC data, with 11 new hospitalizations in the last week. To move into the low transmission at which the state and CDC advise school masking can be optional, Chatham would need to move below 13 cases per 100,000 people and a 5% positivity rate.

CCS administration has long cited masking as the most important tool for keeping students in the classroom by mitigating case transmission within school buildings. There have been 928 cases among students and staff since the first day of school, and just three clusters, according to the district’s COVID dashboard on Tuesday.

Still, even with low community spread, absences due to COVID-19 or exposure among staff members can reduce school operations to an unsustainable level for students and staff alike.

Last spring, district officials suggested that CCS might off-ramp from in-person classes should too many staff members get sick with COVID-19 or be forced to quarantine to teach and carry out school functions.

Across the state, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction said earlier this month that 26 schools had notified them of temporarily switching to remote instruction due to COVID-19, the Raleigh News & Observer reported. At Wake County Schools, one middle school announced Jan. 14 that it would switch to remote learning for the day due to an anticipated absence of 30% of staff.

To help address such staffing shortages accentuated by Omicron, Gov. Roy Cooper announced on Jan. 12 a temporary policy allowing state employees to use volunteer days with supervisor approval to work in the state’s public schools as substitute teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria staff. Without further action, the policy will end Feb. 15.

The directive allows state employees to use paid leave to work as substitutes while also keeping any compensation they earn as substitutes. Full-time employees are eligible for 24 hours of paid community service leave every calendar year, according to the State Human Resource Commission.

“It is critical that we keep children learning in the classroom safely,” Cooper said in a release announcing the policy. “This policy will encourage state employees to lend a helping hand to our students at a time of severe staffing challenges for our public schools.”

At CCS, Wykle said the district gladly welcomed Cooper’s directive.

“We are grateful for our community partners and volunteers,” CCS Superintendent Anthony Jackson said. “Volunteers have been part of the fabric of Chatham County Schools because of strong parental and community stakeholder involvement. We are pleased that this will provide additional opportunities and incentive for engagement with our schools.”

In neighboring counties, some districts have temporarily been unable to run their bus routes, or offer school meals, due to staffing shortages or worker strikes.

Though CCS hasn’t ended any services, the district has faced drastic staffing shortages since this fall. Such shortages led the district to approve one-time bonuses with COVID funds, and to use school principals and teachers as bus drivers and nutrition services workers to keep school services running.

Even with extra COVID-19 funding, finding new employees isn’t an easy task, district officials previously told the News + Record. Lower pay than in private sectors and often sparse benefits, particularly for part-time or hourly workers, has long led to school staffing shortages, national labor advocates say, and the pandemic has only emphasized such factors — underscored now by COVID absences that can lead to teachers filling in additional roles.

It’s a challenge likely to remain even once the Omicron surge is over.

“The level of service across the board has had to be rearranged. Now we are still absolutely teaching and learning,” CCS Assistant Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice told the News + Record in September. “We’re going to keep on doing that. We’re going to have to be creative on how we make it happen.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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