As the Omicron COVID-19 variant surge pushes the school division workforce to its limits, administrators are stepping into schools and getting behind the wheels of school buses to pick up the slack.
During an operational update Tuesday, Superintendent Scott Ziegler told the School Board that 90-100 central office workers are heading into school buildings daily to fill staffing voids.
“This has caused quite a bit of anxiety and it has not been an easy ask and it has not been as easy transition. It’s a big deal. I want to acknowledge that for our central office, many have never worked in a school,” Ziegler said.
He also said that all staff members with commercial driver’s licenses are stepping up to help drive school buses, an area where the division was already stretched thin.
Ziegler canceled all professional development and suspended non-time sensitive work tasks until the end of the month, to free up more staff to go out to schools. There are currently 30 schools experiencing dire staffing needs, which the central office is prioritizing with its reinforcements.
Still, staffing logistics in schools are chaotic. Loudoun Education Association President Sandy Sullivan said the conditions are taking a toll on teachers.
“There’s a lot of people trying to cover in buildings when the teachers are sick or not there. They’re scrambling to make sure they’re covered, their duties are covered, whether it’s bus duty or lunch duty. People are just trying to help take care of everyone with all of these holes, while everyone is dragging as it is,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the situation is exacerbating an existing problem of getting substitutes into classrooms.
“When the problem is staffing, and people aren’t getting paid enough or aren’t willing to come in. That’s been a problem since before COVID, there’s been sub issues for years in bad pockets of times,” she said.
She added that LEA members were nervous returning to schools after winter break because of the spread of the highly contagious variant.
“There’s still a lot of concern over the safety levels with the surge of Omicron. With so many staff members being out, that just creates a huge toll,” Sullivan said. “They want to do what’s right by their students, but they want to be safe. It causes a huge level of stress trying to get through the day and be prepared for your own students, as well as plugging holes all around.”
During his operational update, Ziegler said the school division is committed to in-person learning, citing state code that requires it. But, he said, the code allows divisions some leeway to revert to distance learning temporarily if there is not enough staff to cover classes.
“There may come a time in this current surge where our staffing levels are unsustainable and we have to revert to DL [distance learning] for a short period of time,” he said, adding that the change would last for the quarantine period, which is currently five days.
He said that incoming governor Glenn Youngkin has previously expressed opposition to mask requirements in school, but that the school division would continue to follow guidance from the CDC and the Department of Health to the fullest extent possible.
Several parents addressed mask wearing during the public comment portion of the Jan. 11 meeting, many arguing that the masks are harmful to children.
John Beatty (Catoctin) made a motion to eliminate the mask mandate for students and staff members, but the proposal did not receive support from any other board member. He also moved to end the vaccine mandate for staff and student athletes, but that motion also received no support.
Department of Health Director Dr. David Goodfriend shared an update with the board during the meeting. He said vaccines are proving to be about 70% effective against Omicron, which is lower than their efficacy against previous variants. However, he said that vaccines remain incredibly important to reducing transmission and keeping people out of the hospital.
The flu vaccine, he said, is 40% to 60% effective every year.
Board members pressed Goodfriend on when they could expect a return to normalcy. He said that the best case scenario he envisions is where COVID-19 becomes an annual winter problem, similar to the flu.
“It may be a situation where we try to get through January and February doing everything we can to separate people out, to wear masks, to encourage people to get vaccinations,” Goodfriend said. “And also, at the time, there will be some good pills people can prescribe just like we have now for the flu. That would be my hope of where we are next year.”
He added that Loudoun being out of the state of significant transmission for a month will indicate being out of the current surge. As of Tuesday, Loudoun had a seven-day average of 857 new cases reported daily.