U.S. schools scramble to fix staff shortages, as CDC calls for canceling 'high-risk' extracurriculars to help keep them open

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Lori Manz, a curriculum specialist at the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, Calif., substitute teaches in a seventh-grade math class at Vista View Middle School on Jan. 20. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Lori Manz, a curriculum specialist at the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach, Calif., substitute teaches in a seventh-grade math class at Vista View Middle School on Jan. 20. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Students are back in class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

Some states get creative to try to fill COVID-induced school staffing shortages

States are scrambling to come up with solutions to staffing shortages due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked members of the National Guard to help serve as substitute teachers in preschools and K-12 public schools across the state, to allow classrooms to stay open. Lujan Grisham said in a press conference this week that school districts and preschools across the state need at least 800 substitute teachers and day care workers to fill shifts. She also asked state employees to volunteer to help in schools.

Lujan Grisham said the state has estimated that they will have at least 500 people to help fill the gaps. "We've determined that we have enough state employees, with the volunteer support with the Guard, to get to that 500 fairly readily, and that's just looking at key departments like the education department and veterans department," she said.

Students enrolled in Santa Fe Public Schools have been doing remote learning all week, due to staffing shortages. The district's COVID dashboard reveals there have been 129 new COVID-19 cases reported since Jan. 7, nearly 19 percent of those cases among teachers.

New Mexico isn't the only state with COVID-related staffing issues. On Tuesday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced that he planned to sign an executive order to allow state workers to volunteer as substitute teachers, while still receiving their regular salaries.

"From the beginning, we've made it clear that schools need to be open for in-person learning," Stitt said in a press conference. "Oklahoma students deserve that option."

Stitt signed a bill last year that would prohibit school districts from enforcing mask mandates. It was later blocked by a judge.

According to NPR's StateImpact Oklahoma, roughly 400 schools in Oklahoma have either temporarily closed or switched to remote learning due to COVID-19 staffing issues since the start of 2022.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers' union in the country, told Yahoo Life that states, districts and principals "are right to pull out all stops to help kids learn as Omicron surges."

But, she stressed, this should only be a short-term solution. "While un- or under-qualified staff can keep schools open in a moment of crisis, these quick fixes are not going to work long term," Weingarten said. "Even before COVID, teachers, school nurses, support staff and bus drivers were facing daunting workloads. Layoffs at the start of the pandemic and the virus's malaise — including Omicron and political brawling over teaching honest history — have made the situation even worse."

Weingarten said it's important for schools to address the root issues after the Omicron surge subsides. "The best way to fix structural shortages is to address their root causes, including low wages, poor working conditions and poisonous political fights," she said. "As Omicron begins to abate, we have the perfect opportunity to act.”

Experts are hopeful these pandemic-induced staffing shortages won't last. "It looks like we may be turning the corner on the Omicron wave, especially in states hit first, such as the Northeast," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Yahoo Life. "If the wave in this country follows suit with what has been observed in South Africa and the U.K., hopefully, we will be in this mess for only an additional four to six weeks, fingers crossed."

Until then, members of the National Guard and other unconventional staffers will continue to teach in schools. "Staffing challenges will continue until the Omicron surge in cases abates," infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo Life.

CDC suggests canceling band and football practices to help keep schools open

Recently updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in K-12 schools suggests canceling certain extracurricular activities when the spread of the virus is high in communities, to help keep in-person schooling going.

Among those activities labeled "high risk": football, wrestling, band and anything that involves singing, shouting or exercise, "especially when conducted indoors," the CDC said. The country is in the middle of a massive wave of COVID-19 cases sparked by the highly infectious Omicron variant. While Omicron cases have declined slightly this week, they were still at 768,190 new infections on Wednesday, per CDC data.

While the CDC's suggestion seems extreme, experts say it makes sense. "Extracurricular activities are more likely to lead to COVID spread related to school than [teaching] activities," Adalja said. "If the school's policy is to go virtual with a low threshold, those activities that are known to be higher risk should be curtailed. The purpose of the school is not sports, but education."

Russo says that football and band are questionable as high-risk activities, if they're approached correctly "Outdoor activities will be at much lower risk," he says. "The risk for football is greatest in the locker room; Mitigation measures such as mask use indoors would minimize risk."

Bands could also practice and perform outside to help lower the risk, he said. "Of course, since all students are now eligible for vaccination, this would further decrease risk," Russo added.

Adalja said he expects that school policies for COVID-19 will ease up or phase out over time "as the virus is handled more like other respiratory viruses."

Alabama school district sends letter to all families about potential COVID exposure

Every family in Alabama's Vestavia Hills City Schools district received a letter this week warning that their student might have experienced a "potential COVID exposure," given the number of cases the district has seen.

Superintendent Todd Freeman explained the move in a weekly update to parents posted on the district's website. "Based on a review of our absence data this past Friday, we made the decision to send a potential exposure letter to every family to create heightened awareness," Freeman wrote. "Schools will continue to send regular exposure letters in the same way we have used all year."

Freeman asked that parents monitor their children for symptoms of COVID-19 for 10 days after receiving a letter, before noting that students whose families have received a letter warning of potential exposure can stay in school "as long as they do not have COVID-19 symptoms or test positive."

The district has reported 408 new COVID-19 cases as of Thursday, according to a COVID-19 dashboard for Alabama schools. The district has around 7,000 students. Currently, face masks are optional for students, staff and school visitors, according to the district's health and wellness policy. Those who test positive for COVID need to stay home for five days and mask up for five days afterward. Those who are exposed to COVID and are unvaccinated are asked to stay home for five days.

Russo said that school exposures are "inevitable" at present, given how far Omicron has spread in many parts of the country. "During the Omicron wave, exposures have been as high as any time during this pandemic," he says.

But while sending exposure notifications to everyone in the district seems excessive, Adalja said they can play a role. "Depending on a school’s policy regarding masks, social distancing and vaccinations, exposure notifications may have some value," he said.

Students in Calif. school district threaten to stay home over COVID safety protocols

More than 1,200 students in California's Oakland Unified School District say they'll stay home from school if their requests for COVID-19 safety measures aren't met. A group of students issued a district-wide petition last week, demanding that the district shift from in-person to online learning unless the district makes it "safe" to attend school.

According to the petition, that would mean making KN95 or N95 masks available to every student, having twice a week PCR and rapid tests for everyone on school campuses, and making more outdoor spaces available to eat safely when it rains.

The petition stated that students would "strike" by not going to school starting on Tuesday if the demands weren't met by Monday.

District spokesman John Sasaki told Yahoo Life that preliminary attendance data for Tuesday indicated an absence rate of 24.6 percent. That's down from the previous Monday's absence rate of 28.3 percent and Tuesday of 27.2 percent. "One positive factor that may be reflected in Tuesday's rate is that some students who were quarantined after winter break may have come back to school," Sasaki says.

Sasaki said that the district has similar concerns to students about the recent spike in COVID-19 cases. According to the district's COVID-19 dashboard, there were 862 new cases of the virus reported last week and 114 staff cases.

"That concern is why we have distributed KN95 and N95 masks to all staff [and not to students]," Sasaki said. "We are delivering enough KN95 masks to schools for all students; most went out last week. They are being distributed to students now."

The district is also installing covered eating spaces at "dozens of schools" and has made testing available to students at 10 hubs in the district, along with weekly pooled testing at elementary schools and bi-weekly drop-in testing for secondary schools.

"We are already meeting, or are in the process of meeting, most of the demands noted in this petition," Sasaki said. "And we will continue to work towards fulfilling the rest in the coming weeks."

Russo said that COVID-19 mitigation measures are now "more important than ever." "Mandatory mask use is a critical piece of school safety protocols," he said. "However, it is equally important for students to wear masks properly throughout the day. This may be challenging with N95 masks. Having an alternative high-filtration efficiency mask available for such students should be considered."

Some Iowa schools will stop notifying families and staff of COVID exposures

Certain schools in eastern Iowa will no longer notify families and staff of recent COVID-19 exposures, after local health departments stopped their contact tracing efforts.

The news comes as the state's Linn and Johnson County Public Health Departments have stopped their contact tracing efforts, per The Gazette. Linn County public health officials wrote on the department's website this summer that rapid increases in local COVID-19 cases were "straining local contact tracing resources, and leading to delays in the contact tracing process."

The Johnson County Public Health Department announced the end of its contact tracing program in early January. "During the past week, there has been a 250 percent increase in cases from the previous week," officials wrote. "The total amount of cases in the past week reached an all-time high of almost 1,400 positive individuals. Due to this dramatic increase, JCPH no longer has the ability to contact everyone who tests positive to conduct case investigations and contact tracing."

Experts said it makes sense for many areas to stop contact tracing efforts and notifications at this point. "The number of cases during the Omicron wave has been so overwhelming that contact tracing has not been feasible for many health departments and schools," Russo said. "Of course, this is not ideal, since this measure can help decrease transmission."

To be safe, Russo says that parents and school staff should assume that they're being exposed on a regular basis "and minimize risk, via vaccination and rigorous use of high-quality, well-fitting masks."

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