Area schools continue to grapple with COVID-19, staff shortages into 2022

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(WJHL) – After breaking for the holidays, many school districts across the Tri-Cities are winding down their second week of classes in the new year.

But, as the week has gone on, COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff have risen.

“I think throughout the pandemic, anytime after a break, everyone anticipates a rise – an increase in positive cases,” Washington County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jerry Boyd said.

“We did, we expected a surge with Omicron,” Johnson City City Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Barnett echoed.

As of late Wednesday, Johnson City Schools counted 146 students and 20 faculty members with COVID-19. Washington County Schools reported an active total of 105 combined students and faculty with the virus.

“We didn’t experience probably the type of increase that we might have anticipated,” Boyd said.

Kingsport City Schools saw 148 total new cases district-wide in just the first three days of the week.

“We expected the case count in our school systems are always generally going to reflect the community,” Kingsport City Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. Andy True said. “So, to see an increase at this point is something that isn’t surprising – given what we see around us in our community.”

From teachers and support staff to bus drivers and cafeteria personnel, keeping schools fully staffed has been the greatest challenge.

Substitute teachers have been in particularly high demand, but not always in supply. In that instance, healthy instructors have been called upon to increase their workload.

“We have a fair number of substitutes, but we’re also having to ask teachers and other staff members to cover,” Barnett said.

“It changes every day,” True said. “Our teachers do a phenomenal job every day covering for each other when we have these situations.”

“Right now the schools are continuing to handle it like champions, but it’s a daily struggle to ensure we have enough adults in the building,” Boyd said.

All three districts noted the toll COVID-19 is playing in the continued staff shortages, but all three also explained that the virus isn’t the only thing keeping employees at home.

“At this time of year we have seasonal illness that almost rivals the rates of COVID right now – if not exceeds,” Boyd said. “With the flu and strep [throat] and GI issues that happen during the winter, or at any time, we’re seeing a lot of that, as well.”

“In the past, in pre-COVID, we have, as a district, had short-term closures because of staffing,” True said. “Generally, it was related to flu. Those are the kind of things we want to continue to monitor for now.”

Some of the superintendents remain cautiously optimistic about future relief.

“We take it day by day, week by week – but I really think that we’re going to be able to see this improve within the next few weeks,” Barnett said. “I’m not basing that on intuition or just how I feel – I’ve really tried to pay attention to medical professionals and when they feel that this surge will peak.”

However, all remain prepared for what is possible.

“We should plan on having to deal with this shortage for an indefinite amount of time,” Boyd said. “As I said, it was even a problem prior to COVID, but it certainly is worse now.”

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