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Loudoun teachers, staff pushed to their limits during COVID-19 peak

As the Omicron COVID-19 variant wave pushes the school division’s workforce to its limits, administrators step into schools and get behind the wheel of school buses to clear the backlog.

During an operational update Tuesday, Superintendent Scott Ziegler told the school board that 90-100 employees from the central office are going to school buildings daily to fill staff shortages.

“This has caused quite a bit of anxiety and it wasn’t an easy question and it wasn’t that easy to switch. It’s a big problem. I want to acknowledge that many of our headquarters have never worked in a school,” Ziegler said.

He also said that all staff with commercial driver’s licenses are committed to assisting in driving school buses,an area where the separation had already stretched thin.

Ziegler canceled all professional development and suspended non-time-sensitive work duties until the end of the month to free up more staff to attend school. There are currently 30 schools with major staffing needs, which the central office is prioritizing with its reinforcements.

Yet staff logistics in schools are chaotic. Loudoun Education Association president Sandy Sullivan said the conditions are taking their toll on the teachers.

“There are a lot of people who try to hide in buildings if the teachers are sick or not. They scramble to make sure they are covered, their duties are covered, be it bus service or lunch service. People are just trying to take care of everyone with all these holes, while everyone is dragging as is,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the situation is exacerbating an existing problem of getting substitutes into the classroom.

“If the problem is staffing and people aren’t getting paid enough or aren’t willing to come in. That’s been a problem since before COVID, there’s been sub-problems in bad times for years,” she said.

She added that LEA members were nervous about going back to school after the winter break because of the spread of the highly contagious strain.

“There is still a lot of concern about security levels with the emergence of Omicron. With so many staff members gone, it just takes a huge toll,” Sullivan said. to be on your own students, and to plug holes everywhere.”

During his operational update, Ziegler said the school division is committed to personal learning, citing the state code that requires it. But, he said, the code gives departments some leeway to temporarily revert to distance learning if there aren’t enough staff to cover classes.

“There may come a time in this current wave when our staffing levels are unsustainable and we need to return to DL [distance learning] for a short period,” he said, adding that the change would last for the quarantine period, which is currently five days.

He said that incoming Governor Glenn Youngkin has previously objected to the mask requirements at the school, but the school department will continue to follow guidelines from the CDC and the Department of Health as fully as possible.

Several parents spoke about wearing masks during the public comment portion of the January 11 meeting, many alleging that the masks are harmful to children.

John Beatty (Catoctin) filed a motion to abolish the mask mandate for students and staff, but the proposal was not supported by any other board member. He also moved to end the vaccine mandate for staff and student athletes, but that motion was also unsuccessful.

The director of the Ministry of Health, Dr. David Goodfriend, shared an update with the board during the meeting. He said vaccines have been shown to be about 70% effective against Omicron, which is lower than their efficacy against previous variants. However, he said vaccines remain incredibly important to reduce transmission and keep people out of the hospital.

The flu vaccine, he said, is 40 to 60% effective each year.

Board members urged Goodfriend when they could expect a return to normalcy. He said the best-case scenario he envisions is for COVID-19 to become an annual winter problem, akin to the flu.

“It could be a situation where we’re trying to get through January and February and do everything we can to segregate people, wear masks and encourage people to get vaccinated,” Goodfriend said. “And there will also be good pills that people can prescribe at that time, just like we have now for the flu. That would be my hope for where we are next year.”

He added that Loudoun will be out of a state of significant transmission for a month, indicating that he is out of the current wave. As of Tuesday, Loudoun had reported a seven-day average of 857 new cases per day.