Hamilton County schools wrestle with staffing amid omicron surge

THUMBNAIL ONLY - Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Dr. Justin Robertson with Hamilton County Schools speaks at East Brainerd Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. The school was rebuilt after being badly damaged in the April tornado.
photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Justin Robertson speaks at East Brainerd Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Now the Hamilton County school system superintendent, Robertson said administrators have developed a new tracking system to help monitor teacher shortages at area schools as they wrestle with the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Staffing concerns are top of mind for Hamilton County Schools officials as the district kicked off the new year and a new semester amid a COVID-19 surge fueled by the much more contagious omicron variant with fewer tools at their disposal to control it.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson said the district this week developed a new internal tracking system to monitor schools with multiple teachers out, especially if those classes are not covered by substitute teachers, which are extremely hard to come by these days.

State rules that went into effect in 2021 bar districtwide remote or hybrid learning options, a strategy that schools used early in the pandemic to weather periods during which lots of employees were out sick or in quarantine due to COVID-19.

Districts can seek a waiver through the state allowing them to temporarily move individual schools or classrooms to remote learning if needed

"Although some schools are getting hit with a number of cases, we're not at the point where we've considered applying for a waiver yet," Robertson said.

LET US KNOW: Are you satisfied with how Hamilton County Schools is handling the omicron surge? Fill out our survey here.

As omicron sweeps across the nation, 5,441 public schools began the new year not offering in-person learning for one or more days during the first week of January, according to the school opening tracker website Burbio. Closures due to weather or issues not related to COVID-19 are not included in the tracking.

Chalkbeat Tennessee reported that so far in 2022 at least three Tennessee schools have sought and received a waiver through the Tennessee Department of Education - which this week shortened the length of time allowed for remote learning from seven to five days, citing new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that shortened quarantine and isolation for the general population to five days, which is the time period when a person is most infectious (though the guidelines say individuals should wear a face covering for the next five days).

As of Friday, one week into the month and days into the semester, 3.52% of local district employees had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Hamilton County Schools' COVID-19 data dashboard. That proportion is just shy of the 3.56% of staff who tested positive during the entire month of August at the height of the delta surge.

The largest percentage of infected school staff of the pandemic thus far - 4.14% - occurred during a previous pandemic case surge, in December 2020.

The percentage of COVID-19 cases in students so far this semester was less than 1% as of Friday, well below the August peak of 3.52%

Robertson, an internal candidate name as new superintendent in December, said it "would be nice" to have more local control over the decision to close schools if needed. However, he's grateful waivers are at least an option, which the district used to shift five schools to remote learning for a period during the fall semester.

"I believe Hamilton County demonstrated a commitment to keeping kids in school and to keeping schools open during the 2021 school year," Robertson said. "But I understand where we are, and we're going to do what we can to keep kids in school and do it safely. So, we'll continue to monitor the data, and if it becomes necessary, we'll certainly submit a waiver for individual schools as needed."

In terms of other COVID-19 mitigation measures such as face masks and social distancing, he said the district is strongly encouraging parents and students to follow those same practices that allowed the district to stay open throughout much of 2021.

(READ MORE: Tennessee appeals order blocking school mask mandate limits)

"The biggest thing is if you're symptomatic, stay home until you can get tested," Robertson said. "We're continuing to push vaccinations, as that seems to be reducing the likelihood of people experiencing significant symptoms or hospitalizations, but just the rate and the speed at which this omicron variant is moving has been difficult for us to navigate."

Hamilton County school board chair Tucker McClendon said that in addition to staffing and omicron's rapid spread, he's worried the current access to COVID-19 testing could negatively affect school operations.

"It's not as easy as it was to get a test back in August or September. It's actually really, really hard," McClendon said, noting how many locations that stock at-home tests have run out, and testing sites often have long wait times for appointments. "How do parents take the proper steps if their kid is sick and they don't have resources available to them fairly quickly and abundantly to make decisions and to know if they have COVID or not?"

(READ MORE: Hamilton County student survives rare syndrome linked to COVID-19)

LET US KNOW: Are you satisfied with how Hamilton County Schools is handling the omicron surge? Fill out our survey here.

Robertson said the district has ramped up on-site testing through school nurses, but McClendon said school-based testing poses additional challenges.

"We have nurses that have to make sure that kids have their medicines every single day, regardless of a pandemic. We still have kids that are getting sick regularly with colds and flu and stuff like that," McClendon said. "We also are in charge of feeding our kids breakfast and lunch - in some cases dinner, making sure they have food on the weekend - and now we're having to ensure that they can have resources to get COVID tested."

Despite the many obstacles, he said schools will continue to do whatever it takes to keep their doors open and continue in-person learning.

"We're going to prove that, like we have with everything else we've done with this pandemic," McClendon said. "But we have to have teachers, and we have to see how hard this next variant actually hits us."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.