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Listen in: Omicron has only made Florida's statewide teacher shortage worse. So how are schools coping?

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Hundreds of teachers are calling out sick every day in districts across Central Florida as the highly infectious Omicron variant continues to spread. WMFE reports on how schools are responding to a teacher shortage that’s been compounded by COVID-19. 

When Shakia Brown, the athletic director at Atlantic High School in Volusia County, first started to get sick, she didn’t know it was with COVID-19. She thought it was just an ear infection.

“I was treated for a sinus infection. I wasn't coughing. I didn't have any of the typical symptoms that you would have. I literally was having ear pain.”

Then her daughter got sick too and she decided to buy some COVID test kits. They both came back positive for the virus. Since then, Brown’s been working from home. 

“It’s just been a little difficult because as an athletic director you still have events and everything going on. I will tell you, my administration has been so great. They have been, you know, working with me helping me make sure that you know, the kids are not missing out or anything.”

Brown’s not alone. Andrew Spar is president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teacher’s union. 

“So we've had school districts reporting on average, about 10% of the faculty being absent due to illness.”

These absences only compound a teacher shortage that’s been decades in the making spurred on by low pay, according to teacher advocates. In 2019, one year before the pandemic, Florida had more than 5,000 open teaching positions.

Elizabeth Albert runs Volusia United Educators, the union that Brown belongs to. Albert says substitutes don’t want to come into schools right now. Many don’t have health insurance and don’t want to risk getting sick. 

“And what we're finding now as we have returned from winter break with this surge, it seems that even the substitutes are unwilling to come in now.”

University of Central Florida’s Interim Director of the School of Teacher Education Richard Hartshorne says most people have been fine to teach remotely and so classes, not schools, have been pivoting online.

Hartshorne also says schools should offer incentives to substitute teachers to fill in as needed. Right now most subs make about 12 dollars an hour in Florida.

“Whatever we can do, whether it's increased pay, whether it's one-time bonuses. Whether, you know, can we give substitutes, tuition waivers to get to earn their degrees for certification?”

Back home, Atlantic High School Athletic Director Shakia Brown says she’s working through the intense headaches and nausea that remind her of morning sickness because there are no alternatives. She says she’s worried about the long-term impact of the pandemic on her kids.

“A lot of our kids have suffered educational wise, I mean, literally engagement in the classroom and just being even motivated.”

Although the Florida Department of Education has ordered schools to remain open for in-person learning, Brown says there’s been little guidance about how exactly they should do that.

“There’s no correct way to handle it. There’s no this person did it right. That person did it wrong. Each school district is handling it the best way they know how to.”

The one saving grace for schools that are short-staffed? A University of Florida study predicts the Omicron surge will peak in February.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.