Tennessee schools stressed by omicron variant

Staff shortages and sick students are leading to shut downs

By: - January 14, 2022 6:10 am
Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee on September 15, 2021. Kingsbury Middle School in Berclair neighborhood of Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee on September 15, 2021. Kingsbury Middle School in Berclair neighborhood of Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Collierville High School students had barely returned to class on Jan. 4 when a week later they were sent home as the COVID omicron variant spread rapidly though schools with limited staff and options. 

On Monday, staff at the Shelby County school announced students and faculty would move to remote learning despite a state law limiting school districts from doing that. Individual classrooms or schools can temporarily pivot to remote classrooms by asking State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn for a waiver, providing requests are backed by data. 

In Shelby County, where health officials warned that the healthcare system had yet to recover from previous COVID outbreaks, the county’s daily COVID-case rate of 218.1 per 100,000 surpassed Hamilton County and is twice that of Knox County.

Amid record numbers of COVID-cases, hospitals are currently dealing with staffing shortages further decreasing their ability to provide service — and schools are in the same predicament. 

In a press release, Collierville High School reported that 14% of students and 29% of support staff were either infected or exposed to COVID-19, resulting in the school being unable to adequately staff classrooms. 

“In spite of the herculean efforts of the school’s administration, the essential contributions of our regular substitute teachers, and the willingness of district-level staff to assist wherever needed, current circumstances do not allow us to provide the academic experience that our students deserve and our community expects,” said Collierville Schools Superintendent Dr. Gary Lilly.

Beth Brown, president, Tennessee Education Association (Photo: TEA)
Beth Brown, president, Tennessee Education Association (Photo: TEA)

Last week, angry parents learned that students were left alone during class periods due to absent teachers and a lack of substitute teachers willing to work during a surge. 

Schools across the state are facing unprecedented staffing shortages due to pandemic burnout, according to Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA).

In 2021, Tennessee led the nation in COVID-related school closures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Over the past two years of the pandemic, schools were forced to use inclement weather days during periods of COVID surges to shut down school districts due to a lack of staff needed to keep schools open.

“We’re not just talking about classroom teachers, we’re talking about bus drivers and cafeteria workers, anybody that provides services to students on a daily basis,” Brown said. “Their absences are felt keenly. “ 

Brown anticipates that schools will face similar challenges in the coming weeks made worse by the compounding problems building up over the past two years. 

Teachers were hailed as heroes at the beginning of the pandemic, but attitudes have shifted. 

Last year in Collierville, parents protested the school’s decision to require masks after the Shelby County Health Department required masks to be worn indoors.

In response to complaints, Gov. Bill Lee passed a law preventing schools from issuing mask mandates and stripped local health departments and school officials of their ability to set COVID-19 quarantine policies, including the ability to set COVID-19 restrictions.

In August, Lee, prevented school districts from returning to remote learning, although exceptions could be made for individual schools under certain conditions. Schwinn approved 47 out of 55 requests made during fall semester. 

Federal judges have blocked portions of Lee’s ban on mask mandates in schools on behalf of parents with disabled children who challenged the law as likely violating federal disability rights protections. 

Brown worries about the future of Tennessee’s public education system.

In a survey conducted by TEA, 40% of educators said they were unlikely to stay in the profession, and another 50% said they were unlikely to recommend the profession to others. 

“When you think about that data in light of the fact that we already experienced a shortage and we’re going into another semester where educators are going to be experiencing increased workloads because of the pandemic, it does not bode well for our educator pipeline,” she said. 

In spite of the herculean efforts of the school's administration. . . current circumstances do not allow us to provide the academic experience that our students deserve and our community expects.

– Dr. Gary Lilly, Collierville Schools Superintendent

As of Wednesday, Shelby County Schools has 347 cases of COVID among staff and 527 cases among students. The school system recently increased the daily rate offered to substitute teachers and required masks among students and staff indoors and on school buses, along with continued contact tracing. 

In Davidson County, there are 46 students and 82 staff members in quarantine or isolated, according to Metro Nashville Public Schools COVID-19 dashboard. MNPS officials have not submitted a waiver for remote learning but still have a mask mandate in place

A combination of COVID-safety protocols allowed them to remain open throughout 2021 without experiencing significant staffing challenges, said Sean Braisted, MNPS spokesperson. 

Local and federal funds were invested in additional support systems for teachers and students, including behavioral and restorative practice support, permanent substitute teachers, additional planning time and professional development and an Employee Assistance Program, which offers free counseling.

In May, MNPS board members passed a budget that included increasing teacher pay, making MNPS educators the best paid in the state. 

In Knox County, there are currently 290 active COVID cases among students and staff, with students accounting for 234 cases. 

Masks are required and there are currently 878 active substitutes in Knox County Schools,  and the county’s superintendent has made increasing salaries and improving benefits a priority this year to fill positions, according to KCS spokesperson Carly Harrington.

KCS offers support systems for staff and community partners, including an Employee Assistance Program. 

There has not been a noticeable increase in teachers leaving the district, said Harrington. 


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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.