ELIDA — Schools are turning to principals, college students and parents to fill in as substitute teachers and bus drivers to keep their buildings open amid the latest surge of coronavirus infections, which is threatening the ability of schools to remain in person.
“We want to keep our schools open five days a week for in-person learning,” said Joel Mengerink, superintendent of Elida schools. “That’s what’s best for students and for student learning. But I think we all know that the next one to two weeks will be a great challenge as to whether we’re able to do that.”
Elida has seen roughly 100 student and staff absences due to COVID-19 in the first two weeks of January.
On any given day, Mengerink estimated an average of seven to 10 teachers per building are absent due to illness or quarantine, while absences among secretaries, cafeteria workers and bus drivers continue to strain daily operations.
Still, Mengerink said the district is doing everything it can to remain in person and that any pivot to remote learning would be temporary.
The highly contagious omicron variant of coronavirus, which likely appeared in the Lima area by late December, has exacerbated these challenges by causing a mass surge of new infections right as students were returning to school from winter break.
“The surge came a lot quicker than we had thought it would,” said Jill Ackerman, superintendent of Lima schools, which had 48 students and staff out due to COVID-19 as of Friday.
“We thought we’d get back and then we would see a peak a couple of weeks out,” Ackerman said, “but that surge started hitting right after Christmas.”
Allen County alone has reported a record 1,900 coronavirus infections in the first two weeks of January, while Auglaize County has seen at least 960 positive cases and Putnam County has seen another 600 infections in those 14 days, according to Ohio Department of Health data.
Pandemic staffing shortages have forced schools to get creative to keep students in the classroom: Teachers are filling in for one another during prep periods.
Late bus notifications have become routine as schools try to find substitute bus drivers.
Principals and other administrators are taking turns in the classroom or driving bus routes. Even college students and parents are filling in as substitute teachers after Ohio revised its requirements, which no longer demand that substitute teachers hold a college degree.
But schools see distance learning as a last resort after students experienced major setbacks from virtual schooling in 2020.
“Going to online learning for extended periods is not a positive and we will do everything we can to avoid having to do that,” Aaron Rex, superintendent of Wapakoneta schools, told The Lima News via email.