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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Amid spiking COVID-19 absences, CMS teachers and students worry about each other

Students at Carmel Middle School wear masks in class.
Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
An undated file photo shows students at Carmel Middle School wearing masks in class.

Students' return from winter break last week was quickly followed by grim numbers and dire warnings as absences related to the omicron variant of COVID-19 piled atop existing staff shortages.

"It is no secret that our return to school after winter break has proven to be the most challenging period thus far in a year that has seen significant challenges," Superintendent Earnest Winston told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday.

Among those challenges: Every day since classes resumed last week, CMS has had hundreds more teachers absent than it has substitutes to cover for them. And while everything in CMS happens on a large scale, districts across the region are struggling as well.

Sub hopes to help avert burnout

For George Walker, a retired CMS history teacher, the situation means he's urgently needed as a substitute. Even before the omicron variant spread over winter break, he was filling gaps caused by widespread staff shortages.

He says he spent two months during the first semester covering for a calculus teacher who went on maternity leave. "I made no pretense that I knew calculus," he said.

This semester, he says, the demands have changed: "Now I’m doing a lot of COVID subbing. About every day actually."

Walker is working mostly at Independence High, where he taught for 27 years. He says he filled in for a teacher who went to Mexico over winter break, then tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn’t return in time for the start of classes.

George Walker
George Walker

"And then yesterday I got texted by a teacher, she just found out she has COVID," he said. "So it’s one COVID thing after another. I think about 15 or 20 have COVID at the school right now."

Walker is 59. He says he’s comfortable taking a chance with the omicron variant, which generally produces less serious illness than delta. But he’s seen older retirees who used to substitute decide to sit out the pandemic.

Walker said the financial incentives CMS has added, such as raising pay for subs who are certified and paying bonuses to those who take lots of assignments, have been a plus. He makes $103 a day, but he says he’s most motivated by easing the burden on teachers. When no subs are available, they’re asked to cover absent colleagues’ classes during their planning period.

"If you’re near your breaking point and you cover five days in a row of classes, that might be the day you turn in your resignation," he said.

Walker says many lessons can be done on laptops, with the substitute mainly keeping an eye on things. He says the district may have to get more creative if classroom coverage gaps keep growing.

"They might end up having to put like 100 kids, three classes, in the bleachers with their Chromebooks and have one sub watch ‘em all," he said.

Four days felt like four months

In the meantime, CMS is turning to people like Amanda Thompson-Rice when there aren’t enough substitutes. Normally she travels among 10 middle and high schools supporting their math facilitators. Now she’s covering classes.

Amanda Thompson-Rice
Amanda Thompson-Rice

"You could show up at a school and do theater one day. Show up at a school and be a kindergarten teacher. It’s all about who needs you where," she said.

She’s quick to say she doesn’t blame the schools — or Winston, who’s been in schools filling gaps himself. Still, "this situation is beyond what I’ve ever seen in my career," she said. "Last week was four days? It felt like four months."

Thompson-Rice is also president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. She says CMS and the community need to get serious about supporting teachers through this crisis. She’d like to see better masks distributed to kids and adults and have COVID-19 tests readily available for anyone who’s exposed. She thinks the governor should mobilize the National Guard to drive buses.

And she’s skeptical of the weekly COVID data CMS has been posting.

There’s quite a bit of that among educators. For instance, Monday’s weekly report didn't have West Charlotte High on the list of schools reporting cases or quarantines, despite the fact that it was identified in a separate report as one of two dozen schools with the biggest staffing gaps.

Most of all, Thompson-Rice wishes people would stop sniping and start helping.

"Parents are always like, 'What can I do to help?' The community says, 'What can I do to help?' Sub. Volunteer. That’s what we need," she said.

This week, Gov. Roy Cooper announced he’ll allow state employees to use volunteer days to work as substitute teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers. In order to cover gaps in schools across the state, he’s allowing them to take paid leave and keep any pay they get from school districts.

As hard as life is now for educators, Thompson-Rice says that’s not the biggest concern.

"What really hurts my heart is when I talk to the students," she said. "And the kids are like, 'Ms. Thompson, I haven’t had a teacher in a month and a half.' Kids come to school: 'Do I got a sub? Am I dispersed? Oh man, I’m dispersed today.' "

Would remote be better?

Being dispersed is when there’s no one to cover a class, so the students are divided up and sent to other rooms. Superintendent Winston said that so far he’s been able to keep schools open, "but it would be a stretch to say that our students are receiving the full level of support that we want to provide."

State law doesn’t allow school boards to shift a whole district into remote learning, even for brief periods. But superintendents can take schools or classrooms remote as needed, and Winston told the board that could be coming.

"I have to say that with increases in staff absences, which are driven by the omicron variant’s rapid spread, we may soon face some difficult decisions," he said Tuesday.

Timing is awful

Sidney Griffin
Sidney Griffin

Sidney Griffin is a junior at South Mecklenburg High. According to the CMS data dashboard, South Meck was one of the hardest-hit schools the first week after the holiday, with 51 students and 12 employees testing positive.

"On the morning announcements they call out all the teachers who are needed for coverage and the list is ridiculously long. It’s probably like half, at least half of the faculty," she said.

First-semester final exams are this month. For Griffin, that means she’s trying to prepare while some of her teachers are absent. And she has a group project due for her forensics class, but two of the five members of that group are out sick.

"Like, this is really like the worst time possible," she said.

Griffin says it’s not just omicron absences. Her business law teacher left the job.

"Last week it was a different sub every day. But this week we’ve had one sub, but they’re just a Spanish teacher," she said. "They have no knowledge of the course content whatsoever. They’re like there to babysit."

Long term, Griffin says the solution is recruiting more teachers. But for now, she thinks it would be wise to take schools like hers remote, "just because how rapidly omicron is spreading right now. I think it’s more disruptive to the learning environment now than if we had a consistent remote schedule."

Malachi Thompson
Malachi Thompson

Just keep going

Malachi Thompson, a sophomore at West Charlotte High, says he has mixed feelings about going remote. His entire high school stretch has been spent either learning remotely or in person with COVID-19 safety restrictions.

Thompson says either way there are barriers to the best educational experience.

"It’s very different now teaching a class where we’re socially distanced, we can’t get close to each other, we can’t see each other’s faces and we can’t connect on that level," he said.

He has these words for the adults at his school: "I understand that administration and teachers are really stressful now, but I would encourage them to just keep going, keep going so that we can continue to make a positive impact in our students’ lives."

For now, that’s really the only option. Educators, students and parents are hoping the worst of omicron is over soon and that another, bigger challenge doesn’t follow.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.