In Sheboygan schools, COVID-19 omicron surge is compounding staff shortages. Here's how the district is responding.

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Students enter Urban Middle School to begin the new school year, Wednesday, September 1, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis.
Students enter Urban Middle School to begin the new school year, Wednesday, September 1, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis.

SHEBOYGAN - With the omicron variant spreading through Sheboygan County, more than 2,000 per 100,000 (more than 2 per 100) people tested positive for COVID-19 in the week before Jan. 14, leaving no industry untouched.

In schools, the rise in COVID-19 cases is not only presenting a concern to students' health and learning but is compounding staff shortages in the Sheboygan Area School District — at a time when substitutes are difficult or impossible to find across the state.

Here's how the district is responding.

More: Omicron sweeps through Sheboygan County: One in 100 people tested positive in one week, hospitals at near capacity

Pandemic and labor shortages have increased the workload of existing staff

According to a Jan. 10 letter from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to school administrators, children younger than 18 represented the highest number of new cases across the state in the previous two weeks.

In the Sheboygan area, more than one in 10 students were absent because of COVID-19 on Jan. 10, with over 250 students infected and 818 in quarantine.

More than 10% of Sheboygan students were consistently out sick (with COVID-19 or other illnesses) or quarantined last week, according to the district’s daily attendance report.

This means district nurses and secretaries — who deserve a "huge thank you" — are spending a bulk of their time supporting sick or quarantined students, said SASD Superintendent Seth Harvatine. They work with students to determine their symptoms, connect families with testing, and determine quarantine timelines and return dates.

Sheboygan Area School District Superintendent of Schools Seth Harvatine poses outside of the former district office at Central High School building as seen, Wednesday, October 13, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis.
Sheboygan Area School District Superintendent of Schools Seth Harvatine poses outside of the former district office at Central High School building as seen, Wednesday, October 13, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis.

Meanwhile, SASD staff are also contracting COVID-19, exacerbating staffing challenges that already existed as a result of the labor shortages affecting many industries.

SASD has seen a record number of unfilled regular, full-time positions this year, Harvatine said. The shortages span all types of positions, including educational assistants, teachers, secretaries and other support staff including food service workers.

“At one point, we had 20-plus educational assistant jobs that we just didn’t have any applicants to fill,” he said. “So it’s not only that we’re filling in for vacancies for people who are out (sick), we also have some subs filling in for some of these long-term positions.”

The number of COVID-19 cases among staff in the district increased after the new year. The number peaked Jan. 10 with 62 active staff cases across the district and more than 10% of the staff at four Sheboygan schools infected with COVID-19, according to the SASD COVID-19 dashboard.

Because of a shortage of substitutes not just locally but across the state, SASD has contingency plans in place for existing staff to take on extra responsibilities when schools can’t find substitutes, Harvatine said.

“We’re utilizing existing staff to meet those needs, but that puts a strain (on staff) because we’re asking them to pick up another class or we’re asking a staff member who has a different role in the building to change what they’re doing and cover a classroom in order to keep classes going,” he said. “COVID is obviously putting a strain on our systems.”

The good news, Harvatine said, is that staff shortages have been spread across the district evenly enough that administrators have not had to consider closing a building because of a lack of staff, which has happened elsewhere in the state.

In response to shortages, SASD introduced an employee referral bonus and a $2,000 signing bonus for new hires in December. The district also increased wages for educational assistants to a minimum of $15 per hour and for nutrition services positions to a minimum of $13 per hour.

Open positions can be viewed at https://www.sheboygan.k12.wi.us/careers.

More: 20-year-old Sheboygan husband, father passes away from COVID-19, leaving behind pregnant wife and daughter

More: Here are three new Sheboygan businesses and expansions to look forward to in the new year | Streetwise

Here is what’s being done to mitigate spread of COVID-19 in schools

A COVID test worker, who declined to give her name, waits for a person seeking a COVID test at the stand alone building at the Pigeon River Elementary School campus, Friday, November 5, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis.
A COVID test worker, who declined to give her name, waits for a person seeking a COVID test at the stand alone building at the Pigeon River Elementary School campus, Friday, November 5, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis.

According to Harvatine, to limit the spread of COVID-19, schools continue to:

  • Maximize airflow from outside. The district has already upgraded HVAC systems so that air changes are above recommended limits at all schools.

  • Enhance cleaning. Classrooms are cleaned daily, and bathrooms and high-touch points are cleaned multiple times per day.

  • Promote good hand hygiene. Hand sanitizer is available and fliers remind students about proper handwashing.

  • Recommend or require masks. Masks are optional but recommended, unless 5% or more of students in a building have COVID-19, at which point masks are required (per a school board decision in October). Two schools have implemented the seven-day mask requirement in 2022, as of Tuesday.

  • Provide testing to students, staff and families. Through a state-sponsored program, SASD has 19 test sites across the district. Until this week, these sites had rapid antigen and PCR tests; because of supply shortages, only PCR tests are available right now.

  • Temporarily move classrooms to virtual learning when necessary. Two classrooms have temporarily moved to virtual learning in 2022, as of Tuesday.

The Sheboygan County Department of Health is responsible for contact tracing in the county.

The department is experiencing delays in contact tracing with the recent surge in cases, but working hard to make contact with all confirmed cases, Zachary Metrou, a health educator with the health department, said Monday. People can report their own close contacts using the county's online COVID Positive Case Interview form, which is available in English, Spanish and Hmong.

Reach Maya Hilty at 920-400-7485 or MHilty@sheboygan.gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maya_hilty.

This article originally appeared on Sheboygan Press: COVID-19 omicron surge compounds Sheboygan school staff shortages

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