Thousands of teachers & students absent amid Omicron surge

FL schools dealing with Omicron outbreak — Courtesy: Shutterstock — FamVeld

Schools in Florida are reporting loads of absences among students and teachers this week, a sign that the highly transmissible Omicron variant is already interrupting the new semester.

With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing throughout the Sunshine State, Gov. Ron DeSantis has pledged to keep schools open without any new restrictions or mask mandates. Instead, asymptomatic individuals are being told to resist coronavirus testing as hundreds of students and teachers miss the first days of school in 2022.

“If you don’t have symptoms, you’re not a case,” state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo said Tuesday at an event in Naples.

In Miami Dade County, Florida’s largest school district, 10% of instructional staff missed the first day of school on Monday. It is impossible to determine whether every absence was linked to COVID-19 but for comparison, Miami Dade recorded 1,333 staff absences on the first day back from winter break in 2021.

More than 300 instructional staff returned to school on the following Tuesday, according to officials.

Broward County had about 1,740 teachers missing on Tuesday, making a hole in the district’s staffing. The school district could find substitute teachers for 35 percent of classrooms, leaving schools the option to send campus and district personnel to fill in the gaps.

The trend is similar in Central Florida, where Osceola county schools recorded 314 teacher absences so far this week compared to 180 absences at the same time in Spring of 2021. That represents nearly 8 percent of the district’s teaching faculty.

The teacher absences are putting a strain on local schools, with education officials warning they may be stuck with “doubling up” on classrooms. Outgoing Miami schools chief Alberto Carvalho taught a high school science class on Tuesday as substitute teachers and bus drivers were incredibly short in supply across the state amid the Omicron surge. More than 150 bus drivers called out sick on Tuesday in Broward County alone.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Carvalho tweeted Tuesday.

School officials in Leon County were optimistic that schools would be fully staffed when students showed up for class on Wednesday morning. Schools superintendent Rocky Hanna estimated that the district was down nearly three or four teachers each campus during a district workday on Tuesday.

“I was expecting worse,” Hanna told reporters Tuesday. “I’m happy to say it looks like the vast majority of our employees will be able to return to welcome our kids back tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Osceola County reported that nearly 23 percent of students—12,660—were absent from school on Monday, more than double the district’s daily absence norm in December. Miami schools saw an attendance rate of 82.4 percent on Monday, marking a light downturn of 6 percentage points, from a typical year. Broward County tallied 24,700 student absences on Tuesday, down from 41,700 on Monday.

Florida schools are explicitly banned from mandating masks for students in state law, leaving officials with limited coronavirus precautions at their disposal to fight the Omicron surge. Several school districts implemented visitor and employee masking requirements in hopes of reducing cases.

“It’s not good policy to use testing as a tool to basically limit opportunity and limit people’s ability to get an education,” DeSantis told reporters in Naples.
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