Amid January omicron surge, Polk schools suffer hundreds of employee absences per day

·4 min read
Polk County Public Schools saw a spike in COVID cases this month. File Photo by ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER
Polk County Public Schools saw a spike in COVID cases this month. File Photo by ERNST PETERS/THE LEDGER

BARTOW – Polk County Public Schools saw a surge in COVID-19 cases in January following the holiday break, with Jan. 18 marking the highest one-day total of the school year when 602 students and 116 teachers tested positive.

Data on PCPS’ COVID-19 dashboard show Winter Haven High School had the highest number of cases reported on that date at 31 students. The Bartow High campus, including International Baccalaureate and Summerlin Academy, recorded 24 student cases, as did Citrus Ridge: A Civics Academy. The Haines City High, campus, which includes Haines City IB, had 23 student cases, and Lawton Chiles Middle Academy reported 20.

On that day, 115 students and 30 teachers were quarantined.

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Jan. 18 far exceeded the previous highest day for positive cases: Aug. 30. That’s when 340 students and 62 teachers tested positive. Aug. 30 saw the highest number of quarantined cases this school year: 1,799 students and 77 teachers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its quarantine guidelines on Dec. 27 from 10 days to five days, followed by five days of “strict mask use.”

“The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after,” CDC officials stated when announcing the change.

The infection and quarantine spike, most likely caused by the omicron variant, is pushing the substitute teacher pool past its availability point, and some teachers are reporting that students are having to double up in other classes, or half of one class is given to one teacher and the other half is given to another teacher. In addition, school paraeducators are filling in to teach.

On Jan. 19, Polk County’s 2021 Teacher of the Year Maude Graham, a reading and positive behavior interventionist coach at Blake Academy, celebrated on her Facebook page that their school was assigned three substitute teachers, noting that’s a rare commodity in Polk County.

“This just in we have three subs – three subs picked up,” Graham said, doing a happy dance in the video. "Now that still means we have about four classrooms that are still uncovered with guest teachers, but our paras were asked/assigned those duties, so all positions here at Blake Academy are filled, with either the teachers who are teaching the classes, the guest teachers who took the time to go on Aesop through Kelly Services to pick up a job, and our wonderful paras, so that is, like, very exciting that subs picked up in a world where subs don’t pick up any more and sometimes schools are left to consolidate classes, merge classes together.”

Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Geary said “like all other school districts, we do have internal procedures to redeploy school-based staff and district staff to ensure classrooms are covered.”

Geary sent sick and quarantine rates for employees, including instructional and non-instructional staff, for Jan. 10-18.

  • Jan. 10 – 913

  • Jan. 11 – 884

  • Jan. 12 – 783

  • Jan. 13 – 854

  • Jan. 14 – 952

  • Jan. 17 – no school

  • Jan. 18 – 845

The district, the largest employer in Polk County, has about 14,000 employees. On any given day, about 650 people are absent from work.

Each weekday during January saw at least 100 positive cases of students and sometimes more than 200 or 300, well past numbers from October through December, when just a handful of cases were reported each day as the delta variant waned.

Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum and the school district’s American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees President Margie Patterson said they have not seen any more deaths from COVID since it was reported in October that the district had lost 16 employees, including teachers, paraeducators and bus drivers, since the start of the school year.

“Just a lot of sickness making its rounds,” Patterson said in a text message.

Yocum echoed that: “Lots are sick, but I haven’t heard of any more deaths."

Geary was waiting on an updated figure for the total number of district employees lost this school year and said he would provide it when he received it from their risk management office.

Polk County Public Schools have had 8,584 confirmed cases since early August when school started, including 1,304 employees and 7,280 students. More than 25,300 people have been quarantined, including 880 employees and nearly 24,430 students – a little less than one-fourth of the entire number of students in Polk County Public Schools.

Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: January omicron surge brings hundreds of school absences per day

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