‘This is going to cause people to quit’: In NC, omicron has made teaching even harder

·4 min read
David T. Foster III/dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Rae LeGrone has had to deal with a new challenge lately: going an entire workday without a bathroom break or time to eat.

Because she is helping to cover for colleagues who were out sick, there’s rarely a minute in the day that she is without children.

LeGrone is an art teacher at Olympic High School. Thousands of teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have been absent due to COVID since returning from winter break. There aren’t nearly enough substitute teachers to cover for them, so the teachers who are still healthy — like LeGrone — have to stretch themselves even thinner to keep things running.

That’s a lot to ask of teachers, especially when we’re already asking for too much. Since the onset of the pandemic, schools have struggled to retain their staff, who are overburdened, demoralized and resigning in staggering numbers. As of Dec. 7, a total of 871 CMS teachers had resigned since the school year began, according to data from the district.

“Everybody was already, you know, kind of at their limit on stress, and here after the holidays, we’re just taking it to a whole new level,” seventh-grade teacher Justin Parmenter said.

Staff shortages

Politicians are adamant about keeping schools open, even as COVID cases skyrocket across the state. But the number of missing teachers and staff has severely affected district operations. Staff shortages at Asheville City Schools forced the entire system to close for in-person learning last week, while bus service at eight high schools in Guilford County has been temporarily suspended due to sick drivers.

Unable to find enough substitutes, North Carolina has turned to unconventional ways to fill the gaps. State employees have been encouraged to use paid volunteer time to serve as substitute teachers, bus drivers or cafeteria workers. In some cases, superintendents and other district staff have stepped in.

More often than not, classes are split up when their teacher is absent, and the students are fed into classrooms that can accommodate them. Parmenter said he now may have more than 30 students in his classroom at a time. Not only is that stressful, it makes him feel more vulnerable to COVID.

“When you have a classroom with 30-plus students in it, whether they’re your own or whether it’s that full because you’re including students who aren’t yours, then that makes it much harder to keep your distance from people,” Parmenter said. “So it’s definitely a scary time to be a teacher and to be a student as well.”

Safety concerns

Exhaustion isn’t the only worry, though. Teachers say they don’t really feel safe in classrooms right now, and they don’t feel like schools are doing enough to protect them.

Isolation and testing guidance from the state and other officials is constantly changing, creating confusion for both teachers and parents. Most public schools in the state do not have the capacity to regularly test students and staff, and finding a place to get tested in the community can be a real struggle.

“When I’m sitting in a class of 30 people or sitting in a staff meeting wondering, it’s a really uncomfortable feeling. It’s hard to feel safe when you’re not sure who has COVID. You know, maybe it’s me,” Parmenter said.

Most school districts don’t currently provide medical-grade masks, such as N95 or KN95 respirators, to students and staff, even as experts have said these masks offer significantly better protection against the omicron variant than cloth ones.

Many school buildings, especially older ones, are poorly ventilated, and despite pleas from parents and teachers, sufficient improvements haven’t been made. LeGrone said she set up her own ventilation system in her classroom to make her feel safer. The filter turned black in less than a week.

It was already hard enough to be a teacher in North Carolina, but COVID has raised the stakes. Omicron is running teachers ragged, and living in a constant state of stress and anxiety just isn’t sustainable for anyone. How much more can they take? Is the job really worth the burdens that come with it, especially when the pay is so little?

“It’s going to drive even more resignations, and it’s going to make people sick. It’s going to make them physically ill to be working at such a heightened level of anxiety,” LeGrone said. “I think what we’re really going to see is this is going to cause people to quit. And that’s just a cascading effect.”