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Omicron causes mass staff shortages in North Texas schools

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, Aug.  17, 2021.

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

AP

Fort Worth and other North Texas school districts face mounting staff shortages this week as COVID-19 spreads swiftly through classrooms.

In January, Fort Worth schools have had the highest number of staff members out due to COVID-19 since the district started its data dashboard in August, according to the district website.

As of Tuesday at 4:45 pm, 1,187 of the Fort Worth district’s 11,019 employees — more than 10% — had been quarantined since the beginning of the new year, according to the district’s live COVID-19 dashboard. This week, 341 staff members are quarantined due to COVID exposure or a positive COVID test, a district spokeswoman said. Since Jan. 1, 636 staff members — almost 6% of all staff members — have tested positive for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the district had 398 unfilled teacher positions — about 7% of all 5,362 teacher positions — for both COVID-19 and other-related reasons, spokeswoman Claudia Garibay said. The district has about 1,200 substitutes in its database after increasing the roster by 350 employees during fall hiring events.

“It’s really getting to a point where operationally, schools are hurting,” said Steven Poole, executive director of the North Texas-based United Educators Association. “There’s not enough teachers and staff, and coupled with all of these quarantines and isolations that their colleagues are going through, it’s becoming basically untenable to continue to go to school in a meaningful way. Their day is constantly disrupted.”

The omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused community transmissions to spike across Texas. So far this month, Tarrant County has repeatedly set new pandemic highs for the positive test rate, with a seven-day average rate above 39% as of Saturday.

As more staff members are exposed or catch COVID-19, Poole said, “it’s going to have to get to a point where we may see some school closures.”

The Fort Worth school district started the COVID-19 dashboard in August 2021. The number of staff who reported exposure to COVID in January is the highest number reported on the dashboard since its inception. The shortage is not just among teachers — sick or quarantined bus drivers and cafeteria workers leave a gap in transporting and feeding students.

Cases among students are up, too. Since Jan. 1, according to the district’s data as of Tuesday afternoon, 1,076 Fort Worth district students — about 1.4% of the total student body — have tested positive for COVID-19. As of Jan. 10, 1,132 students were quarantined after exposure to someone with COVID-19 on a school campus.

In the Arlington school district, 79 staff members were positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to the district’s website. This week, 251 Arlington students have tested positive.

Clay Robison, public affairs specialist with the Texas State Teachers Association, said the teachers union has heard from members across the state who are burnt out. As more teachers and staff call out sick, remaining employees face mounting demands.

“When you don’t have enough people to teach the kids or get the kids to school without endangering the health of a lot of people, then it looks like many school districts will have no choice but to close,” Robison said.

Robison said the TSTA continues to demand that Gov. Greg Abbott withdraw his executive order passed last year that prevents districts from implementing mask mandates. If students and staff were required to wear masks , Robison said, the current surge could be alleviated.

“(The order) flies in the face of the advice of health experts; it flies in the face of science,” Robison said. “It’s a political order that the governor should have repealed a long time ago.”

Need for substitute teachers

The COVID-19 surge is being felt in school districts across the state. Rio Vista school district closed for two days this week due to staff shortages, WFAA-TV reported. School officials at a district near Austin asked parents and central staff to consider filling in as substitutes on Tuesday classes to help alleviate the shortage.

Kristin Snively, a spokeswoman for the Grapevine-Colleyville school district, said that as of Tuesday morning, there were 131 absences including teachers and “paraprofessionals” for whom substitutes were needed, and there were only 66 substitutes available. If a substitute isn’t available, other district staff members can teach classes, or classes might be combined, she said.

Snively added that there are 10 bus driver vacancies, and five new drivers are in training.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram also contacted other Tarrant County school districts via phone and email, but did not receive responses from the following districts: Aledo, Carroll, Crowley, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Birdville, and Mansfield.

For those seeking to become a substitute teacher, the Fort Worth school district is hosting the Fort Worth ISD Auxiliary and Substitute Virtual Hiring Fair on Thursday.

Community members can step up in North Texas, too, Poole said. Retired school personnel or community volunteers might be able to help with substitute, bus driver or general staff shortages.

“Right now it needs to be all hands on deck,” Poole said. “Anyone and everyone in the schools — community partners, parents, they need to help.”

As for the community as a whole, Robison urged people to follow the Centers for Disease Control guidelines on masking, vaccination and social distancing.

“Put school and student safety over politics,” he said.

Staff writer Elizabeth Campbell contributed to this report.

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Kaley Johnson is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. She majored in investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for bringing readers in-depth, complex stories that will impact their lives. Send your tips via email or Twitter.

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