Thursday, May 23, 2024

Principal Darrell Williams at King Open Elementary School on Jan. 2, talking with reporters about staff picking up rapid tests from the state as the district anticipated a surge in coronavirus transmission during winter break. (Photo: Cambridge Public Schools via Twitter)

While there’s been a high rate of student absences since the end of a winter break that saw a surge in coronavirus cases, many school district staff are also in isolation due to Covid, including nurses and medical aides, putting additional pressure on administrators and staff.

The impact since the start of the year only became clear this week, when the video from a Jan. 5 meeting of the district’s Safety, Health & Facilities Working Group was posted.

The student absentee rate the day of the meeting was “approaching 30 percent … which is extremely high, ” said school district chief operating officer Jim Maloney. “I think all bets are off with omicron.”

The district’s director of communications, Sujata Wycoff, and Susan Feinberg, public information officer at the Cambridge Public Health Department, provided data for the following days: The rate was slightly better Jan. 6, with roughly 25 percent of students in all grades absent as they may have received positive test results triggering five-day isolation periods. Families may also have kept students home while waiting for test results.

Attendance rebounded this week, with an absence rate between 15 percent and 17 percent Monday, only to return to nearly 25 percent Tuesday.

Teachers, paraprofessionals hit hard 

The district’s teaching staff has been hit hard, with 129 in “student-facing roles” such as teachers, paraprofessionals and counselors absent due to Covid infection, district officials said at the meeting. Roughly 24 percent of district educators were in isolation. 

No updates on staff absences were made available.

Interim superintendent Victoria Greer said that district staff would identify which schools had staff absences, specifically teachers and paraprofessionals, and plan for coverage, including assigning district administrative staff to teach classes. If a classroom has low student attendance, principals may reassign some of its staff to a class where there are staff shortages. 

The district’s human resources department is identifying temporary substitutes to supplement the two or more substitutes assigned to each building, Greer said, and a plea for teacher substitutes was made at the School Committee meeting Jan. 4.

A message from Greer on the district website dated Monday highlights that the district is recruiting substitute teachers for all grade levels and for special education with a pay rate of $161.59 daily. A bachelor’s degree requirement is waived for the 2021-2022 school year, though applicants must have some educational experience.

Greer noted that many district administrators maintain teacher certifications.

“If your child comes home saying that Dr. Turk taught them that day, then that’s probably true,” Greer said, referring to district deputy assistant superintendent Carolyn Turk. “It’s all hands on deck. That’s where we are right now.”

Nurses affected too

The number of school nurses who are unable to work due to Covid infections was also discussed Jan. 5. 

“We’re stretched so thin that we have had to double up a few of the smaller schools,” said CPS medical officer Lisa Dobberteen. That did not apply to schools where there are students with complicated medical needs such as diabetes that require a nurse in the building. “We have tapped into our per diem supply, we have looked at agencies, and there are no nurses [available through] Cambridge Health Alliance. There do not seem to be any extra nurses around.”

“All schools with lower-acuity health needs are able to share nurses and/or health aides,” wrote Feinberg on Wednesday, referring to the Fletcher Maynard Academy and Haggerty, Baldwin and Tobin schools.

Maloney said medical staff are rising to the occasion, giving as an example Mackenzie Shubert, a nurse manager who had assigned herself to a school in addition to her administrative duties.

Maloney said that families would be notified if nursing staff would be shared with another school during the day.