“We may soon face some difficult decisions”: CMS facing major challenges with COVID staff shortages

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, leaders said it’s leaving lots of extra work for those still in schools.
Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 10:31 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Seven days into the spring semester for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and staff shortages are real.

There are thousands of absences due to the Omicron variant.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, leaders said it’s leaving lots of extra work for those still in schools.

“Staff are out everywhere and everybody’s pretty much…it’s almost hit or miss at this point. You’re just waiting for the ball to drop and it to be your turn,” CMS instructional associate Jennifer Sale said.

Each week, the number of teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and other CMS employees is falling due to staff shortages and COVID-19 related absences.

The district says an average of more than 1,000 teachers are out. Substitutes have been able to cover less than 50 percent of those classes.

Sale is an instructional associate at Winding Springs Elementary School. In the last couple of weeks, she’s taken on extra responsibilities.

“Right now, I’m getting ready to start student teaching and that’s holding priority but I have had to cover some classes,” she said. “I have had to cover the isolation room. I have had to step into some roles that I don’t normally have to do.”

Hundreds of bus drivers and nutrition staff are absent.

Superintendent Earnest Winston says between 120-145 bus drivers were absent or on approved leave. On Tuesday, staff covered for 132 staff members including support from substitute drivers and the executive director Adam Johnson.

Winston also addressed nutrition staff shortages saying 12-14 percent of permanent staff have been absent including 118 people on Tuesday. He went on to say 25 percent of temporary staff out including 24 people Tuesday. Food service has not been interrupted.

School board leaders say drivers are doubling and combining routes.

Everyone from the central office staff, administrators, support staff, and Superintendent Winston himself, are covering classes. More than 200 guest teachers are helping out.

“Our central office staff has served in more than thirty schools across our district,” Winston said. “We will continue to do so as long as the need remains.”

“We remain open but it would be a stretch to say that our students are receiving the full level of support that we want to provide,” Winston said. “This is not due to a lack of effort or any shortcoming by our staff. It is what simply happens when we have to staff classrooms with adults, and we appreciate all adults who are not content experts the way our teachers are.”

Since the return from winter break, student attendance has been in the 85 percent range, which is a 4-5 percent change compared to weeks leading up to winter break.

“They’re taking their time and realizing there’s a problem and we have to address it and the way that we can address it is just put on our teacher shoes and our teacher hat and come on in here,” Sale said.

That begs the question, will CMS be able to make it in-person? Or will classes move remote?

“We may soon face some difficult decisions. It is nearly inevitable that teaching and learning will be impacted more significantly should the virus remain on its current trajectory.”

A state law signed by Governor Cooper last august restricts school districts from shifting the entire district to remote learning due to COVID. Now, the school board can only make individual classes, schools, or grade levels remote learning if there is not enough staff. CMS leaders tell WBTV there isn’t a set formula for this but it is situational for each school.

You can visit CMS’s website now to see qualifications and apply to be a substitute teacher.

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