District gets crafty about coverage in wake of staff illnesses
Students and staff returned to school for the first time in 2022 on Tuesday, Jan. 4 — a day later than planned.
The delayed return to the classroom — which also delayed the opening of the new Wareham Elementary School building — was the result of a deluge of staff illnesses.
Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood said that when school was canceled, the district had about 38 staff members “that we knew would not be able to be in attendance on Monday.”
The staff members calling out were from “all categories,” Shaver-Hood explained, including bus drivers, teachers and permanent substitutes, which made it very difficult to plan coverage for those who couldn’t come in.
She noted that some staff members were actively sick with covid-19 or other illnesses, but the exact number of people who had tested positive for covid-19 or who were quarantined due to an exposure was unknown as of Jan. 4.
To ensure students could return on Tuesday, Shaver-Hood said principals at each of the schools worked Monday to carefully evaluate how to spread their available staff.
“We looked at how can we fit the pieces together that we needed to fit together,” she said. “It just gave us more time to work out where we were at.”
She noted that a few staff members were able to return for school Tuesday, but “of course, there were a couple more out” as well.
“We have teachers that are covering other teachers’ classes. We have paraprofessionals that are assisting in coverage,” Shaver-Hood said. “We were able to move people knowing where we were at much more effectively given that extra time.”
She praised the work of the principals and assistant principals who develop coverage schedules.
“We were handy,” Shaver-Hood said. “It was really through their hard work and diligence that we were able to pull that off.”
Shaver-Hood said she was “very concerned” about the expected post-holiday covid-19 spike causing further staff shortages and potential school closures.
“Absolutely we’re worried,” she said. “I’m not only worried about our staff — I’m worried about our students and families… I wish I had the answer. I don’t.”
Shaver-Hood emphasized that her concern went well beyond school closures.
“I’m just worried about general safety,” she said, adding that the district would navigate through securing additional coverage as needed.
She encouraged people to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves against covid-19 — and emphasized how important it is for students and staff to stay home when feeling sick or after a positive covid test, even if the person is not experiencing symptoms.
“I keep saying to people: ‘Please wear your masks. Please social distance. Please make sure you wash your hands. And, if you so choose to get vaccinated, please get vaccinated,’” Shaver-Hood said. “Do everything you can to keep yourself healthy.”
Moving forward, she said there’s no specific threshold for the number of staff members who can call out sick before schools must close.
“If certain categories of employees would call out — let’s just say bus drivers — that could put us down pretty quickly, because we don’t have very many bus drivers who would cover,” Shaver-Hood said.
If a certain number of teachers at one school were out, that could make it very difficult to open the school, she added.
After talking with officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Jan. 3, Shaver-Hood said it seems the state is open to potentially allowing districts some situation-specific flexibility during this wave of the pandemic.
“Meaning, if I have one grade level — let’s just say that I have X amount of students out and X amount of teachers out — they may allow us to quarantine that one grade level, and we could go remote with those students,” Shaver-Hood explained.
But, she emphasized, those decisions can only be made with DESE’s permission.
“This isn’t something that we’re just allowed to go and make the decision ourselves,” Shaver-Hood said. “DESE has made that very clear.”
Beyond the conversation she had with education department officials, Shaver-Hood said DESE has not specifically addressed or provided districts with guidelines for navigating another potential spike in cases.
Staff shortages aren’t the only worry for the district.
Shaver-Hood said student absences are also a cause for concern.
“In fact, we’ve had several students that we’ve had to send home today because [they were] symptomatic or been exposed to [covid] and they’re now quarantined,” she said.
On top of that, she said the district has heard that some parents have sent their kids to school — or that staff members have come to work — after they’ve tested positive for covid-19.
“I say this to our staff, ‘If you’re not feeling well, please don’t come to school,’” Shaver-Hood said. “The same thing — if your child’s not feeling well, please don’t send them to school. Because if they are positive, then you’ve just opened up another group of possible exposures.”
She noted that with the new variant sometimes people don’t even feel sick — and she acknowledged that “everyone is tired of this.”
“I know that our staff are working above and beyond, our parents are, our students are,” she said. “We just need to keep going in the same direction to get to the other side of this.”
She encouraged anyone with questions to reach out to the school nurses.
Even when fully asymptomatic, Shaver-Hood’s message for those who have covid-19 was clear:
“If you are positive, please stay home.”