With more teachers sickened or sidelined by the highly contagious Omicron variant, school districts across the country have resorted to extraordinary measures to keep classrooms running.
Cincinnati Public Schools averted the shutdown of 11 schools Monday by dispatching more than 60 staffers from the district’s central office to classrooms, the school board said.
But it wasn’t enough to keep schools open, and the district will now move to remote learning.
In upstate New York, the West Genesee Central School District posted on Facebook asking young alumni to sign up as substitute teachers.
“Are you home on college break and want to help out at your alma mater? Come be a Substitute Teacher or Teaching Assistant while you are home and earn some spending money before you go back to school,” the district posted January 5.
And the Boston Public Schools superintendent stepped in to substitute teach a fifth grade class Wednesday – one of numerous administrators who backfilled some 650 teacher absences during the Omicron surge.
‘Subs have been a challenge for all school districts’
Just outside of Austin, the Hays Consolidated Independent School District in Texas has asked parents to work as substitute teachers.
“We sent an email to our parents and posted on social media asking them to consider applying to be a sub,” Hays CISD spokesman Tim Savoy said.
“Subs have been a challenge for all school districts this year.”
At the beginning of the school year, schools grappled with teacher shortages due to the Delta variant – the most contagious strain of novel coronavirus at the time.
Now, the Omicron variant has surpassed Delta’s transmissibility.
“In a normal year, we have about 500 subs in our pool of subs. We started this year with only about 100 subs because of Delta,” Savoy said.
“We have since increased the pool of approved subs to about 300. But because of Omicron, the demand is also greatly increased.”
While the need is severe, new substitutes must still pass a screening process.
“All applicants, including the parents, still have to apply, pass the fingerprint criminal background check and do the orientation,” Savoy said.
But in some cases, “we can waive our requirement for them to have at least 30 hours of college credit,” he said.
“The waiving of college credit is not for everyone and it’s something we have had in place for years – long before the pandemic. … That has typically applied to parents in the past since that is who principals would most likely be in contact with.”
Teacher absences are ‘about twice their normal rate’
At the School District of Clayton, just west of St. Louis, many central office administrators have been working as substitutes in classrooms, district spokesperson Chris Tennill said.
While substitute teacher shortages have been a problem for years, it’s “becoming even more of a problem (and finally getting some awareness) because of Omicron,” Tennill said.
“Our teacher absences are trending at about twice their normal rate, and we are only filling about 30-40% of those absences with subs,” Tennill said.
“We are a smaller school district (2,600 students) so we have been able to be creative, move staff around and get most if not all of our absences covered since we’ve been back from winter break. However, that means that most of our central office administrators (assistant superintendents, chiefs, etc) are starting their days at one of our schools (instead of in their office) to help cover classes.”
A Maine school district asks parents to help keep schools open
While some schools in Maine have had to move to remote teaching, the Yarmouth School Department has found creative ways to help classrooms stay staffed.
Despite “the increased number of infections of COVID-19 among our staff last week, we have been able to continue operating our schools due to the incredible dedication of staff throughout the district,” the school system said in a statement Saturday.
“Teachers, administrators and support personnel have consistently stepped in to cover for one another, with some non-instructional personnel rescheduling their entire days to serve as substitutes in our schools.”
But more help is needed, the school district said.
“If you are able, we invite you to apply to be a substitute or volunteer in our schools. In order to ensure the safety of all students, individuals in these roles must go through a well-defined background check and approval process.”
The district noted that all substitute teachers and volunteers must show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination.
When teachers and subs are out for the same reasons
In Texas, the Northside Independent School District is getting hit with a double whammy of teacher shortages.
“Like so many other school districts in the area (and likely across the country), Northside ISD has seen unusually high staff and student absences last week and this week,” spokesperson Barry Perez said.
“Also like other districts, we are seeing higher rates of unfilled substitute jobs as a result of substitute teachers also being ill, tending to others in their family who are ill, or for other reasons.”
As a result, district staff members have been dispatched to help cover teachers who are out ill, he said.
On Monday and Tuesday, about 1,570 staff members were absent, Perez said. That’s 12% of the district’s staff.
On Tuesday, the school district needed about 1,230 substitute teachers, he said. “We were able to fill 55% of that need.”
Schools ask parents to be substitute teachers or support staff
In California, the Palo Alto Unified School District is asking parents to volunteer for an effort it’s calling “Together, Schools Stay Open.”
“The latest COVID surge has impacted schools across the country creating challenges to remain open,” the California school district said in a statement.
“Beyond classroom substitutes, PAUSD will need assistance addressing the needs when our support staff is impacted.”
The district is asking parents to volunteer in “designated roles” that will be coordinated by the parent-teacher association and school leadership.
When there aren’t enough substitutes for substitutes
Despite shuffling district staff members into classrooms, Cincinnati Public Schools announced it will have to go remote due to “ongoing staff shortages that are the result of increased community spread of Covid-19,” the district announced Tuesday.
Students will begin remote learning Wednesday.
“In-person learning is scheduled to resume on Monday, January 24,” the school district said, “if staffing levels are sufficient to safely reopen schools.”
CNN’s Stella Chan contributed to this report.