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Texas schools struggle to stay open as teachers and bus drivers call in sick with COVID-19
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Texas schools struggle to stay open as teachers and bus drivers call in sick with COVID-19

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The complicated ritual of dropping off or picking up her three children from their respective schools already took Maze Ikeen about two hours per journey.

After a wave of COVID-19 infections forced the Hutto Independent School District to discontinue regular bus operations for nearly 4,000 students this week, each trip extended to about three hours — or almost six hours of Ikeen’s day — as parents have few other choices than to drive their children to campus.

“This is taking up entirely too much time of my day,” said Ikeen, who works virtually and has had to catch up at night to accommodate the time spent waiting in school pickup lines.

The long lines were an unintended but exhausting consequence of the district’s attempts to keep its schools open, but on Friday, those efforts gave way to reality: Hutto ISD announced it would close campus operations next week until Thursday, citing a high volume of employees out sick with COVID-19.

Parents, students and school employees across Texas are facing similar disruptions as some school districts temporarily close or alter operations amid the latest COVID-19 surge. The virus is infecting teachers, bus drivers and other staff members at unprecedented rates that may continue to rise, further complicating school functions.

School closures are affecting all parts of the state. Fort Worth’s Northwest Independent School District is closing from Friday to Wednesday after seeing a nearly 900% increase in COVID-19 cases since the winter break. At least 25 East Texas school districts have shut down for several days. The Texas Education Agency said it’s gathering information on how many school districts have closed across the state but did not have the information available Thursday.

“Every superintendent wants to be able to have kids in the classroom and teachers in the classroom … but you get to a certain critical place where you don’t have enough staff available and you have to shut the campus down,” said Kevin Brown, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “We want to keep kids safe, and you have to have a certain number of adults in the building.”

Many schools that have avoided closures are facing widespread employee shortages as the highly contagious omicron variant infects more people faster than previous iterations of the virus.

College Station Independent School District’s website showed 251 active cases among staff and students as of Friday afternoon, including 54 new cases. The current Bryan ISD tracker showed 246 students and 65 staff members as current positive cases.

South of Fort Worth, Rio Vista ISD opened its doors for in-person instruction in the first week of January, but after voluntary testing events revealed many employees had COVID-19, the school district closed for the second week of classes and hopes to return after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The district’s latest COVID-19 data showed more than a third of its employees were infected.

Tammy Witten, Rio Vista ISD’s acting superintendent, said the district is having trouble acquiring enough COVID-19 test kits and had to ask for some from neighboring school districts.

Hutto ISD also is struggling to acquire enough tests and estimates it will run out of them after classes return from the long holiday weekend.

Without more tests, staff members showing symptoms will have to quarantine until they can get tested, which may further exacerbate the staffing shortages, said Henry Gideon, Hutto ISD’s assistant superintendent for operations. As of Friday, more than 200 employees were out.

“We’re scrambling to borrow, beg and do whatever we can to find some, but we’re very close to running out of test kits,” Gideon said.

Clarksville ISD, in Red River County, shuttered its doors until Jan. 20 due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. The district is already looking to extend the academic year to make up for lost instructional time.

At its middle and high school campus, about 15 teachers are out with COVID-19, two of which are the district’s only high school-level English teachers. For Clarksville ISD, just a handful of absent teachers can deliver a devastating blow to the school system.

“You think to yourself, do you shut down an entire system for two teachers? In a small district, if it’s two of the right teachers, that’s all it takes,” Clarksville ISD Superintendent Kermit Ward said. “For the next five days, my kids (wouldn’t) get any English at all. None, because there’s no one else at that campus capable of delivering that level of instruction.”

And with funding tied to in-person attendance, the district can’t afford to provide virtual instruction in addition to having to extend the school year.

“That’s almost like asking my teachers to work longer and not paying them,” Ward said.

What’s more, Ward worries about the impact the disruption will have for his students — especially if teachers continue to call in sick.

“My district probably has more to lose than anyone because my district is heavily concentrated with poor, minority students, students who need that consistency every day,” he said. “A disruption for those kinds of kids is epic, it’s monumental, it’s paramount.”

For small and rural districts, having enough school personnel in the building has been a long-standing challenge. Tarkington ISD, for instance, was recruiting custodians and bus drivers even before the pandemic.

Tarkington ISD Superintendent Marc Keith said many of his employees have had to wear different hats when others call in sick. Coaches are certified to drive buses and will complete bus routes. Administrators have often been on the food service line when there aren’t enough cafeteria workers.

Several Texas school districts also have struggled to obtain substitute teachers, and some have even tapped parents to watch over classrooms.

Keith is concerned about the stress all this puts on his healthy employees.

“They end up with, if we’re not careful, burnout just from them having to pick up extra duties,” he said. “Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Because about the time we feel like, OK, we’ve got this under control, here it comes again.”

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