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Omicron wave erodes exhausted school staff
Estacada Middle School Principal Ben Hargrave helps a student Monday during choir, where he was filling in for an absent teacher. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Estacada Middle School Principal Ben Hargrave learned Sunday night he would have one teacher out. By Monday morning, he was down three teachers with no substitutes available.
He drew up a plan with himself, Vice Principal Greg Kelley and Instructional Coach Rachel Perry teaching the open class periods. They adjusted the plan after one of the district’s full-time substitute teachers became available. By about 9 a.m. Monday, they had to shift gears again after Perry learned she needed to leave for the rest of the day.
With classified and licensed staff absences soaring, Hargrave said he spends more than 30 minutes a day figuring out who goes where. Not all the absences are COVID-19 related, but the total is higher and the replacement pool smaller for every staff position.
Omicron is a cresting wave on top of a high tide of COVID-19-related school absences. Administrators, teachers and staff are nearly drowning in the extra work.
“Four months into this school year, in-person learning is facing its greatest obstacles,” Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said at a news conference Friday.
Gill has repeatedly called keeping children in classrooms the department’s “north star.” In recent days, however, some schools nationally and in Oregon overwhelmed by staff absences have shifted to distance learning. Gill said to expect more closures but that the decision will stay in local hands and that most schools will stay open.
Some districts report only a small increase in staff absences, but most school leaders are doing a daily dance, scheduling teachers to work through planning periods and deploying administrative and district personnel to do everything from teaching math to cleaning kitchens and driving buses.
Philomath Superintendent Susan Halliday said her staff is exhausted. Teachers are working through their planning periods while rampant student quarantines and illnesses increase the planning needs. Teachers must keep students engaged where possible and help them catch up when they return, requiring layers of learning models each day.
Most districts don’t know how many absences are directly or indirectly related to COVID-19 or the added pandemic stresses.
“I’m sure there are days when teachers are saying, ‘I just can’t do it,’” said North Clackamas Human Resources Executive Director Mark Moser.
North Clackamas staff absences are about one-third higher than normal for January, but teacher absences are up roughly 75 percent.
In January 2019 and 2020, North Clackamas averaged more than 95% coverage for teacher absences, meaning if someone was sick the district almost always could get a sub. Despite paying more for substitutes than neighboring districts, North Clackamas could cover only 55.4% of classes with their teachers or substitute teachers.
Clackamas’ aggressive pursuit of substitutes adds challenges for places like Estacada, about 20 miles southeast of the Portland-area district.
Estacada has about 65% of the teachers it needs most days after it has called in all available subs, Estacada Communications Director Maggie Kelly said. Like some other districts, Estacada hired permanent “floating” subs, which Kelly said have been lifesavers but can’t fill all the need.
The daily shuffle creates a domino effect as Hargrave moves people around.
On Monday, he covered a sixth grade choir class. Boston Jackson, the district’s musical accompanist, taught the class while Hargrave provided the licensed teacher presence. Usually, Jackson would just be playing the piano, but with the music teacher out for multiple days, he provided continuity for the children.
“I’m working above my pay grade,” he said. “It’s fun but not sustainable.”
Next period, Hargrave led the band class.
Meanwhile, counselor Amelia Gundlach was outside monitoring a second lunch period. Gundlach usually only covers one period so she can be available in the office for students during lunch. Afterward, she covered the front desk because one of the two secretaries was out and the other needed a lunch break.
Oregon administrators and district office personnel aren’t just covering classrooms. They are driving buses, wiping down tables and taking out the trash.
Hargrave said he has done custodial work every day this year. He said last week he had nine “required” meetings but only attended one. By skipping meetings, though, he prevented staff who work directly with students from being affected.
“There is a cost-benefit analysis I try to do with my team: What has the least impact on our students and our students’ experiences in the classroom?” he said. “We’re trying not to disrupt the learning environment.”
On Monday, Estacada Vice Principal Kelley had a 20-minute breather between extra duties. When asked, he said things are going “OK.”
When pressed, he admitted, “OK means students are in classes, teachers are in rooms, learning is happening, and we are as normal as we can be.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA