COVID, staffing shortages pose challenge as schools return to in-person learning

Staff briefed the Edmonds School Board, via Zoom Sept. 28, about the return to in-person learning.

From staffing shortages to classroom COVID-19 outbreaks, the Edmonds School Board at its Sept. 28 business meeting received an update from staff on the challenges associated with the district returning to in-person learning this year.

“We’ve been working hard to get back to school and keep kids in school, but it’s been as difficult as we’ve seen it compared to the springtime,” Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas said. “We have been very, very impacted with (a) lack of staffing and people taking leaves.”

He added, “We’re just short staffed and this is not just us, this is not just a region, this is every person I’ve talked to. And much like you see restaurants or other businesses looking for workers, so are we and we’re doing the best that we can with the staff that we do have.”

Balderas told the board that since the school year began Sept. 8, COVID-19 cases have shown up at all of the district’s schools in some form. “We’ve been busy in our campuses with contact tracing and quarantining our kids,” he said. “It’s a difficult time, it’s just this is very difficult for us to continue because of the staffing situation that we’re in,” which has left the district “still short in all aspects of our staff, particularly our classified staff.”

The district is working to hire additional positions including support staff to help with contact tracing. Two other departments that have been significantly impacted by those shortages are the district’s transportation and nutrition services, the latter of which has also been affected by disruptions to the food supply chain.

Balderas said he thinks some of the current staff shortages “stems from the (Oct. 18) COVID-19 vaccine mandate that some folks are opting out of, so there is an impact to that.” He added that transportation services, in particular, might still be hit even harder by a lack of drivers. “I do worry about transportation and it’s one that I know we’ve alerted our community about, this could be pretty impactful since two-thirds of our transportation is legally required,” to be provided for those students because of special programs, he said.

The district is thankful, Balderas said, for federal emergency funding that covers pandemic-related expenses such as personal protective equipment for staff. He also clarified, following public comments made by a speaker at the school board’s previous meeting, that the school district has not provided a stipend to its teachers or staff due to the current mandate by Gov. Inslee regarding the COVID-19 vaccination of employees. Balderas further noted that the district can’t bargain in public regarding these issues because it utilizes a closed-bargaining model as a means to avoid potentially unfair labor practices.

He noted that student enrollment is down this year and said “there is a concern regarding long-term impacts to the budget” due to those losses. “That’s something we’re working through as well and we’ll keep you abreast on that.”

Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen said that 71 active COVID-19 cases have been investigated in the Edmonds School District over the last two weeks. During that time, 421 curative PCR tests, which are more accurate than rapid versions, have been completed in the district. Following guidelines provided by the Snohomish Health District, there were 335 students and seven staff members in quarantine as of Tuesday night, and six classrooms have been closed since Sept. 14.

She anticipated that the number of district staff quarantined would decrease after Oct. 18, when they are required to either be vaccinated or have been granted a medical or religious exemption from vaccination.

If a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the communications process involves each building’s lead supervisor or principal working with the school district’s health team to contact trace. Families of students and any staff identified as having close contacts then receive notice and are given next steps regarding the testing and quarantining procedures. Communications regarding the positive case also go out to staff of that building and the school community. Then the school district website’s COVID-19 dashboard is updated.

The district has coordinated across elementary and secondary schools to communicate with teachers, students and their families about absences due to being quarantined. That includes ensuring students have access to instructional materials including lessons and learning activities and are made aware of the schoolwork required while absent. There are also guidelines in place for when an entire classroom must quarantine and work remotely.

Geaslen noted that the district is following recommendations from the Snohomish County Health District for various testing, quarantining and symptomatic criteria concerning people who have been in close contact with or are infected by the virus. She added that the key takeaways from those is that if people are symptomatic they need to stay home.

The health district recently updated specific quarantine recommendations regarding timeframes for people who have been exposed to the virus or come in close contact with a positive case but aren’t themselves experiencing symptoms. A quarantine period of 14 days is still considered the safest option for people after their last contact. If that is not possible, schools may offer a modified quarantine period lasting 10 days after their last contact without additional testing, or seven days although that requires a negative PCR test result from five days after their last exposure contact. However, the guidelines note that utilizing a seven-day quarantine option depends on the availability of testing resources and therefore may not be recommended in some settings.

“For us, the impact is staff,” Geaslen said. “We have curative testing in all of our sites, but that does mean that students would have to find a way to come in and we can’t really have students or staff who have been exposed coming back into the building. So there would have to be something devised there of a drive-thru” or similar type setting, she added, or those individuals would have to be able to access PCR testing outside of the school. The district would then need to provide additional staffing for analyzing and verifying the influx of information from those test results along with coordinating when students and staff could return to buildings.

She said that reducing to a 10-day quarantine period “is feasible for us.” The district has put out job postings for licensed practical nurse positions to help with contact tracing efforts and other responsibilities. Geaslen anticipated that once those positions are filled, the district could then reduce its required quarantine period down to 10 days. However, she noted, lowering that period even further to seven days, along with its related testing requirements, “adds another layer of staffing need.”

“Speaking to area superintendents, they’re facing the same thing, it really is a staffing dilemma right now and just making sure that we have the ability to do that,” Balderas said of lowering the quarantine period. “And the goal is always to go less when we can,” but it will probably require making incremental steps.

“Can we get to 10 (days) right now and do that well,” he added. “And then see if we can get to seven (days) and do that well down the road. But scaling down from 14 to 10 (days) is going to take additional staff and then once we have that, again, see if we can get down to seven” days.

Geaslen noted that the health guidelines for a seven-day quarantine period specifically require a negative test result from a PCR test, which excludes rapid and home tests. Per the health district, “only the PCR tests can get you out of quarantine early,” she said.

Assistant Superintendent Helen Joung said because of the recent volume of enrollment intent form change requests the district has received, it will have to delay further processing of those for certain periods of time throughout the year now that school is in session. That delay is due to staffing, space and other considerations that need to be reviewed. The plan calls for requests to be processed at the end of the first quarter on Oct. 29, 2021 with a goal of placing students for a start date of Nov. 8, 2021; and also at the end of the first semester on Jan. 21, 2022 with a goal of placing students for a start date of Feb. 1, 2022.

The district recently added the equivalent of more than 12 full time employee positions following its annual fourth day of the school year count, which assesses the number of students enrolled in classrooms and determines if any resulting staffing changes are needed. Currently, 20 certificated positions of various full-time employment equivalencies and lengths of time throughout the school year remain open.

Human Resources Director Debby Carter said, “In addition to staffing the online school and preparing for students to come back in person, we just have the normal routine of filling positions through resignations and retirements.” She noted that compared to previous years, the number of resignations and retirements is “about spot on to what we normally are.” There are currently 110 individuals who are on some sort of approved full or partial leave, which is a slight increase from most years and has also led to the need to hire more staff.

The district is also facing challenges in filling positions that provide support in classrooms or with other services. There are currently 45 of those classified positions open, plus postings for a number of other job pools such as substitutes, licensed practical nurses and custodians.

Finance Director Lydia Sellie said the district continues to face transportation challenges due to a shortage of school bus drivers. “We came into the school year approximately just under 30 drivers fewer than a year ago,” she added. “We are concerned with the Oct. 18 vaccine deadline that we will lose additional drivers at that point in time.” Currently about 40 of the district’s bus drivers have not yet provided proof of vaccination or requested an exemption, which Sellie said is “a little concerning,” although she noted that some time still remains for them to submit such information.

Food and Nutrition Services Director Megan de Vries said, “One of our biggest celebrations is that meals are free for all students again this entire school year,” and “it feels really good to be able to feed kids for free.” But the food and nutrition program is also facing challenges because of staffing shortages and de Vries said she is still looking to hire 35 more people for various positions.

In addition, her department has had to deal with supply outages from factories that produce the goods it needs. They have also experienced problems getting supplies due to a national shortage of delivery drivers who transport those goods from the factories and vendors that provide them to the school district. Another common problem this year has been last-minute food substitutions necessitated by supply chain disruptions and driver shortages, although de Vries noted that the online menus published for schools are updated with subsequent changes made to the food items offered.

During follow-up comments, three student advisors to the board of directors all said that they greatly appreciated the return to in-person learning. Some also noted that they were impressed by the helpful efforts of various staff and teachers since the school year started.

“I do want to thank all of the educators that are making the return to schools possible,” Balderas said. “It’s just great to see our kids on campus.”

Look for more school board updates in a related story coming soon.

— By Nathan Blackwell

  1. US children are being outperformed by even 2nd world countries. We pay more per capita than any nation for K-10. Studies in Europe where schools never closed proved, scientifically that there is no increased danger to anyone with schools open. Taco Bell goes to work. Our kids are measurably left behind bc teachers are not following science, more concerned with other things. Record people unemployed but having staffing issues?

  2. Thank you SO MUCH for the many people in Edmonds who with much thought and effort into making school and learning happen during a very difficult time. Keeping people well is crucial in that effort, so let’s work together to get rid of COVID.

    This notion of our kids being “outperformed” is based only on testing that skims the surface of what a learner knows.

    In teaching overseas I found that we might learn from school systems in some countries in our mission to constantly improve learning. But other places that “test” high are school systems that I wouldn’t send my children to.

    People learn if they value learning and meets their learning style. Learning is done in MANY ways! Our children learn by exploration, thinking, and experiences. Parents, newspapers, books, grandparents, workers in the community all contribute to teaching. Our free library system, as well as museums, nature, the arts, and discussion of newspaper articles can all contribute to learning, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. A “can do” attitude to learn new things is what it takes.

    In places with community spirit and where people are fed, are healthy, have quality healthcare, have quality childcare, help each other, and are gainfully employed, learning will thrive for both kids and adults. We have a lot of work to do.

    Thanks Edmonds School District for struggling with issues to make learning happen in our community, and tell us how we can help.

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