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One month in, Roanoke schools are open, but staffing shortage, infections are challenges

One month in, Roanoke schools are open, but staffing shortage, infections are challenges

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A recent pandemic report for Roanoke City Public Schools showed the highest numbers of students infected with COVID-19 since the start of the crisis 18 months ago, a rise that was not unexpected.

The number of empty desks represents a tiny fraction of the student body, but teachers and staff feel under strain as the school system returns to in-person classes like before the pandemic. Not only are COVID-19 infections up, teacher vacancies are atypically high and the school system is short bus drivers, bus aides and cafeteria workers.

On the plus side, teachers are acting on plans to have students to read, write and discuss every subject every day. Energy is also going into helping students learn what they missed last year, officials said. Virtual learning is available to qualifying students.

“Overall, I’m pleased with where we are one month in,” said Lutheria Smith, school board chair, on Friday. It’s thrilling that schools are open, that students are receiving instruction to catch up and that virtual learning remains an option, she said, adding a heartful shout-out for the work of teachers and staff.

Superintendent Verletta White reported on the school year that commenced Aug. 24 in remarks to the city School Board earlier this week.

“We’re off to a good start,” White said. “Our opening, of course, has not been without a few challenges.”

The Roanoke Education Association and White are scheduled to meet next week at the association’s request to troubleshoot a number of issues.

“It has been kind of a rocky start,” REA president Randy Blair said. “One of our main issues is just being short of help. A lot of teachers are staying after for the buses to show up and covering classes during the day because we don’t have enough subs, don’t have enough teachers.”

The threat of COVID-19 makes it harder to adequately staff the schools so that written plans for the academic year work in real life, he said, noting that some instructors are out sick or taking care of ill family members.

The city school system, which last year was the 18th largest in the state, reported Tuesday that 91 pupils had tested positive out of a student body of slightly less than 14,000. During the entire 2020-21 academic year, when students primarily took classes online, the district counted about 60 students infected by the virus.

Nearly 400 city students have been out of class this school year after exposure to the virus, officials said Tuesday. A portion of them are included in the count of confirmed infections.

The Roanoke school system is certainly not alone in the region. All public school divisions are dealing with similar issues.

Franklin County schools, which have been heavily affected by a surge in COVID-19 cases, have a desperate need for teacher assistants. They have 165 but need 18 more, wrote schools Human Resources Director Gregg Cuddy in an e-mail.

The Franklin County school system has more than 1,000 quarantines affecting students and staff. At Monday’s school board meeting, Cuddy discussed how a shortage of substitutes has further stretched teachers who are already struggling to cover classes while their colleagues are out.

“As I know you are all very well aware, covering classes creates an additional layer of stress, wear and tear, exhaustion, for faculty and staff when they already faced with challenging, difficult times,” Cuddy told the board.

In addition to paraprofessionals, “we are in need of bus drivers and bus monitors,” Cuddy wrote Friday. “Currently we have three unfilled full-time bus routes.”

The school system also needs substitute bus drivers, cafeteria workers in the elementary and middle schools and custodians, Cuddy wrote.

Officials believed going into the new school year they could see more COVID-19 illness given the return to in-person learning, the presence of the highly transmissible delta variant and the fact that there is no vaccine available yet for children under 12, according to the region’s top health officer.

“We all understand that bringing children back into the classroom, back in person, it does increase the risk of potential exposure,” said Roanoke City and Alleghany Health District director Cynthia Morrow.

“But the alternative is keeping children at home,” added Morrow, who said that that would have brought “significant harm” to youth.

Public health investigators have found evidence that most of the sickened students caught the virus at home or in the community and not in school, Morrow said.

The school district’s public health strategies include physical distancing and masking. When White she sees a student whose mask is too low, she points to her nose to encourage the student to raise theirs over the nose, she said. Students are by and large are wearing masks as asked, Smith said.

Testing opportunities will expand, officials said. Although school nurses are not equipped to test students, the Virginia Department of Health is planning to offer testing at certain elementary schools to anyone interested beginning Wednesday and continuing on each of the five successive Wednesdays. Details will be announced at a later time.

President Joe Biden’s recently revised pandemic strategy could apply to public schools, but details aren’t yet known, according to White. Whether school system employees will be required to be vaccinated or pass regular tests has not been announced.

Staff morale is down, White said.

One reason, among others, is that teachers desire to be close to students but can’t. “Having our desks apart, having our distance from them, I think, is a little more stressful and especially when there are exposures in classrooms or positive cases in classrooms, that brings up more kind of fear and anxiety. We do acknowledge that teachers may be feeling a lot of that,” White said.

The labor shortage is a simultaneous challenge.

As of midweek, the Roanoke district employed 1,080 teachers, instructional coaches and specialists and needed an additional 47, spokeswoman Claire Mitzel said. Nine of the vacant positions are newly created positions that didn’t previously exist, she said.

To attract interest in working for the school system, pay and incentives have been increased. For instance, city schools raised starting pay for instructional assistants to $13.44 for those with zero to three years of college and to $14.40 for those with four or more years of college, Mitzel said.

As of midweek, transportation contractor Durham School Services employed 121 drivers and 60 aides and needed an additional 52 drivers and eight aides. The district is offering a hiring bonus of $2,500 for new drivers. Any current driver or aide who refers a successful applicant with a commercial driver’s license for a bus-driving position will receive $1,000.

Currently bus system employees can collect a retention bonus for the newly commenced school year and each of the next two school years of $2,000 per year per driver and $1,500 per year per aide, Mitzel said.

White used a moment during the meeting, which was livestreamed on Facebook, to appeal to applicants.

“If you are looking for a great team, we are your team,” she said.

Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers the city of Roanoke, including schools, banking and transportation. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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