It feels a bit like deja vu.
The rapid surge in COVID-19 cases and a growing staffing crisis are forcing school administrators in Lincoln to once again make tough decisions reminiscent of March 2020, back when the pandemic forced classrooms to close completely.
On Thursday, Lincoln Pius X High School announced it will institute a half-day schedule through Jan. 21 as the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads through the community.
Classes at Pius X will dismiss at noon and school days will alternate between students attending periods 1-4 and periods 5-8.
Teachers at Pius X are expected to work the full day to catch up on lesson plans and to help students in quarantine or those who have recently returned to school keep up with classmates.
The move comes as COVID-19 cases in Lincoln reach unprecedented levels. At Pius X — like other schools in the city — more students than ever are missing school due to positive tests or contact tracing. Teachers are also bearing the brunt, forced to cover classes for absent colleagues due to a lack of available substitutes.
And the situation is only expected to get worse, officials warn.
"Basically, it's just our attempt to really manage the increased absenteeism we're expecting based on the (Lincoln-Lancaster County) Health Department's forecast," said Pius X Chief Administrative Officer Tom Korta. "They have expressed that the middle of January is when we're going to see it peak. ... We didn't want to be left scrambling last minute, so this was just a way for us to be proactive."
So far this week, 45 students and four staff members at Pius X have reported positive tests, according to the school's coronavirus dashboard. While the school does not list numbers of quarantined students, Korta said they are much higher than in the past.
At Lincoln Public Schools, where case counts, too, are surging, officials are bracing for the possibility that individual classrooms or schools may be forced to close in the coming weeks due to staff shortages.
Eric Weber, associate superintendent of human resources, said there is no one metric the district uses when determining to close a classroom or school. But when over 10% of staff or students are absent, that's when officials grow concerned.
If a classroom or school closes, students affected would attend classes remotely via Zoom, a policy that's been in place since last school year.
District officials have briefed building administrators on preparing for that contingency and LPS was planning a "practice run" for teachers this week so staff and students are "not behind the eight ball" if they have to go remote, Weber said.
While officials hope schools will not have to resort to that, LPS was forced to close two special-education programs this week because of staffing shortages — a microcosm of the greater workforce crisis especially plaguing schools since the second semester began.
There were 334 LPS staff members in quarantine as of Thursday and 87 have tested positive. But those figures could grow, officials said, merely because of the vast number of submissions being entered into the district's COVID reporting system. That in turn is creating a backlog slowing down the numbers being fed into LPS' online coronavirus dashboard.
And there are not nearly enough substitutes filling those vacancies, making it challenging for schools to staff classrooms, kitchens, buses and more.
A startling statistic paints the picture well: On Wednesday, nearly 40% of certificated staff vacancies in LPS went unfilled. That means teachers who are at work have to drop time they would typically use to plan lessons to cover classes for their absent colleagues.
"They are covering left and right," said Deb Rasmussen, president of the Lincoln Education Association, the district's teachers union. "It's not good for kids."
Just this week, a record 782 students have tested positive at LPS, and over 2,400 — or over 5% of the student body — are in quarantine.
Matthew Hecker, chief administrative officer for schools in the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln, said principals of Lincoln's Catholic schools were to meet Thursday to discuss COVID mitigation strategies.
Unlike at LPS, where masks are required for staff and students, the diocese — including Pius X — moved to an optional face-covering framework when the health department dropped its countywide mask mandate last month.
But some individual Catholic schools in Lincoln have moved to mask mandates to prevent spread, Hecker said.
Closing classrooms and schools because of staffing issues or surging case numbers is on the table, Hecker said, but those decisions would be made on a school-by-school basis.
"At this point, you have to have all the tools in the tool chest, so to speak," he said.
At Pius X, officials will decide whether to extend its half-day format beyond next week in consultation with the health department, Korta said, and hopes it will prevent the need to resort to more drastic measures.
"We're doing our best to keep school in session to prevent that March 2020 phenomenon," he said.
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