Teachers interviewed Wednesday say they're grateful for the actions Columbia Public Schools officials enacted to slow the surge of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in schools, with a few caveats that more could have been done sooner.
The school district restored a temporary mask mandate as of the beginning of this week. The mandate is to remain in place until Feb. 4. The district announced last Friday afternoon that schools would be closed to students on Friday this week and Monday and Tuesday next week. Those will serve as teacher workdays.
The school board plans to meet Thursday to make some of those measures official.
The 14-day rate among 10,000 people within the school district on Tuesday was 285, the highest it has ever been, according to the district's COVID tracker.
There were 84 staff members who tested positive and four in quarantine. There were 206 students testing positive, with 68 in quarantine. The number of positive cases among students and staff began a slow decline after peaking on Jan. 11.
The fill rate for substitute teachers was 44%.
"I think teachers are really relieved to have the mask mandate back in place," said Susie Adams, a teacher at Battle High School.
She had thought some students may be resistant, but it hasn't been an issue, she said.
She keeps a supply of masks in her classroom.
"Students come in and ask for masks," she said. "I think the surge has alarmed them as well."
She will use the workdays to catch up on grading and planning on which she has fallen behind because of the substitute teacher shortage.
People are coming from other schools to substitute, she said.
"We're all one," Adams said. "We're all in this together."
The days off may allow students to stay in classrooms.
"I definitely hope taking days off allows us to stay in class instead of going online," Adams said. "Nobody wants to go back online."
She questions some moves, she said.
"I do feel it would have been wise not to remove the mask mandate in December when they did," Adams said of the school board. "It would have been wise to extend the mask mandate into February as proposed."
The school board and administration have the teachers' backs, Adams said.
"I know they're really working on it for our behalf," Adams said.
Hickman High School teacher MacKenzie Everett-Kennedy's immunocompromised daughter was in school just a few days after the start of school on Jan. 4 when she caught COVID.
"It hit her like a brick for 36 hours with fever, lethargy, congestion and pain all over," Everett-Kennedy wrote in a column published in the Tribune. Her daughter was fully vaccinated and the symptoms went away after a few days, but because her daughter has diabetes, it is causing her to have elevated blood sugar levels.
"We're happy that something is being done" by the district, Everett-Kennedy said in a phone conversation about the actions that have been taken. "We are very appreciative."
There were obvious concerns before the semester started, she said.
"The warning signs were there," Everett-Kennedy said. "Why did we ignore them?"
Several teachers and families emailed the board and administrators about the surge, she said.
"The fact we started the year the way we did is concerning," she said.
Students who are close contacts with other students who test positive are no longer required to stay home, which Everett-Kennedy said is a mistake.
"It was working," Everett-Kennedy said. "Take away quarantine. Take away masks. It's the perfect storm."
The school board should have done something to address COVID-19 at its Jan. 10 meeting, Everett-Kennedy said.
"Why COVID was not part of the school board meeting last week is mind-boggling," Everett-Kennedy said. "We're in a pandemic. It should be on every agenda."
The district strategies may flatten the omicron peak by reducing chances of transmission, wrote teachers' union president Noelle Gilzow in a text message. She had been substituting and teaching every period on Wednesday.
The days off are meant to align with the forecasted peak of omicron, based on University of Missouri wastewater studies, she wrote.
"Temporarily masking adds another layer of protection from its spread in schools," Gilzow wrote.
The workdays are welcome, she wrote.
"The teachers will have teacher-directed workdays in order to plan effective lessons and provide students with feedback on their progress, since so many teachers have lost planning times due to the sub shortage and the large number of teacher absences due to the case number surge," she wrote.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: CPS teachers grateful for actions to slow COVID spread with exceptions