Lexington-Richland 5 issues “urgent call” for substitute teachers amid Omicron surge

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Published: Jan. 12, 2022 at 9:33 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 12, 2022 at 11:28 PM EST
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IRMO, S.C. (WIS) - As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 surges in South Carolina, some Midlands school districts are having a hard time finding healthy teachers to fill classrooms.

Lexington-Richland School District 5 is issuing an “urgent call” for substitute teachers this week.

Dr. Akil Ross, Lexington-Richland 5 Superintendent, said he expects this need to continue, with case numbers rising district-wide.

“Our determination is to keep the schools open,” he said. “And so as it impacts our staff, we need to increase our substitute pool.”

He said it was important for the Lexington-Richland 5 to request help from the community.

“This is not something that we’re trying to do and keep quiet, we’re letting people know we have an issue,” he said. “It’s not a Lexington District 5 issue, this is all over our state and all over our nation. Schools need help. And so we appreciate our partners, those who say ‘Hey, I can do a half a day so I’ll sign up.’”

The issue, Ross said, is that Lexington-Richland 5 schools hit a peak this week of 207 staff absences, due to COVID-19, other illnesses or personal leave. This left 96 unfilled classrooms.

For context, the district would see an average of 121 staff absences before winter break, with about 44 of those going unfilled.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, there are more students and staff out with the virus this week than at any point during the school year.

The numbers from January 11 show that 169 staff were impacted, and 2,438 students. The district defines “impacted” as those who have “tested positive for, are isolated because of a positive test for, or are in quarantine due to COVID-19.”

To fill the teacher void, various staffers across the district are stepping up.

“So right now it’s a combination of, yes, anyone who can man the ship, it’s all hands on deck,” Ross said. “So we have district office staff, district coordinators, we have chiefs. I may be in the classroom when I get time. And then our substitute pool.”

Ross hopes to strengthen that substitute pool by next week.

“That urgent call doesn’t mean that you come in the next day,” he said. “There is a screening process, background checks, TB tests, there’s a five hour course that you take on classroom management because we want you to be prepared when you come in. But we do need the community’s support during this time.”

The background check and screening process for substitutes typically take about five days so Ross hopes to have new substitutes in district schools by next Tuesday following the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Some teachers and parents are calling on Lexington-Richland 5 to temporarily shift all schools to virtual learning. Orangeburg County Schools announced that they would be making this move until Tuesday, January 18 due to high COVID-19 spread in the district.

Ross said he understands these concerns, as his focus on safety is “ever-present.” However, he added that he must consider the whole picture, including those who may have difficulty accessing heat, food or water in the event of a closure.

“Every time I move a child to remote learning, I am constantly thinking about what that child has to experience for those days,” he said. “I know the power of schools and I know the place that we have in our community. When I remove that from the life of a child, just for one day, it’s hard to live with that.”

The district is consistently monitoring COVID-19 spread in the community, and evaluating its options. Ross reiterated that the main priority is keeping students in the classroom.

“If we believe that we can provide instruction, safety and supervision, those won’t be compromised, that building will be open,” he said.

CrossRoads Intermediate School currently has the highest percentage of students out across Lexington-Richland 5 with 38.2 percent. Ross said based on conversations with principal Dr. Erin Doty, the district believes it can continue to provide a safe in-person learning environment for students at this time.

Chapin Elementary School is currently the only school in the district in a virtual posture. District administration plans to resume in-person instruction at Chapin Elementary on Tuesday, January 18.

RELATED STORY | Midlands schools temporarily shifting to virtual learning

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