Metro Atlanta schools battle to stay open amid COVID staff shortages

Students arrive at Norcross Elementary School on Jan. 10, 2022. Across Georgia, schools are determined to keep their doors open amid high coronavirus rates that have led to staffing shortages. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
Students arrive at Norcross Elementary School on Jan. 10, 2022. Across Georgia, schools are determined to keep their doors open amid high coronavirus rates that have led to staffing shortages. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Administrators filling in as teachers. Principals washing dishes. Bus drivers doubling their routes.

That’s the situation in schools across the state as coronavirus case rates remain exceptionally high — topping the peak numbers seen in last year’s delta surge.

School districts, including systems in Gwinnett and Fulton counties, documented their highest case counts of the 2021-2022 school year in the first days of classes after winter break.

But amid high staff absences, leaders are determined to keep school doors open, saying students learn better in classrooms than remotely. In some cases, they’re filling the staffing gaps in unconventional ways.

Combined ShapeCaption
School administrators at Norcross Elementary School welcome students on Jan. 10, 2022. Across Georgia, schools are determined to keep their doors open amid high coronavirus rates that have led to staffing shortages. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

School administrators at Norcross Elementary School welcome students on Jan. 10, 2022. Across Georgia, schools are determined to keep their doors open amid high coronavirus rates that have led to staffing shortages. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Combined ShapeCaption
School administrators at Norcross Elementary School welcome students on Jan. 10, 2022. Across Georgia, schools are determined to keep their doors open amid high coronavirus rates that have led to staffing shortages. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Laura Wilson, the principal of South Forsyth High School, has been donning a hairnet and serving chicken nuggets alongside other administrators due to a shortage of cafeteria workers — a problem at multiple schools.

“I’m chief dishwasher,” she said. “We’ve gotten trained on the register. We help serve food. We help restock.”

Staff shortages are most obvious in classrooms.

Senait Pirani, a senior at Parkview High School in Gwinnett County, said her advanced mathematical decision-making class doubled up with a pre-calculus course because a teacher was out and a substitute wasn’t available. The class was so crowded that some students had to sit on the floor.

“I thought I walked into the wrong class because someone else was in my seat,” Pirani said.

Schools acknowledged the unusual efforts being made to keep their doors open.

“It’s not ideal but it definitely beats being virtual,” said Jeremy Williams, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools.

ExploreThe latest on how the coronavirus is affecting Georgia schools

Six metro Atlanta school districts started classes online after winter break due to record-high COVID-19 case counts in the area, which created staffing issues. All but one — Rockdale County Public Schools — resumed in-person classes this week.

Ten of the state’s 180 school districts reported partial or full closures on Wednesday, according to the Georgia Department of Education. At least 68 of 2,300 schools were affected.

But Fulton County Schools cautioned parents ahead of this week’s return to buildings that staffing challenges might mean pivoting back to virtual learning in some instances. By midweek, that hadn’t happened, but a handful of central office administrators were filling in as teachers at some schools.

Nick Ferrante, a father of two in Fayette County, said parents in the south metro Atlanta community have seen staff shortages and worry that more teachers could be sick without realizing it because of the tight supply of testing kits.

“I know a lot of parents who are keeping their kids out right now and doing the virtual learning over the next few weeks,” he said.

Gwinnett parent Shenika Terrell had a similar concern. She wanted to keep her daughter Sydnee, a first grader at Grayson Elementary School, at home because she worried about rising COVID-19 infections.

She said her worries were warranted. Another class was combined with her daughter’s because a teacher was out and there was no substitute.

”That’s just not good for the kids or the teacher,” she said.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Morcease Beasley, the superintendent in Clayton County, warned that the situation is fluid.

“We will be making decisions on a weekly basis until we no longer have to make weekly decisions,” he said in a recent YouTube Live address about omicron.

Renfroe Middle School in Decatur closed briefly this week because there weren’t enough substitute teachers to fill in for missing staff.

“While our teachers and central office staff have stepped up and covered classes as needed, we have reached the point where we need to switch to full-virtual learning for a short time,” Principal Greg Wiseman said in a message to parents.

ExploreMore AJC education coverage

The Georgia Department of Public Health began introducing new rules to mitigate staffing issues in late December. The agency cut isolation periods for the infected in half, per new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, Gov. Brian Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state public health commissioner, also eliminated the requirement for contact tracing.

Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale quickly said he would no longer require his staff to do that work in most cases. Clayton County, meanwhile, will continue with it.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring said last week that the substitute teacher pool was “relatively robust,” but she has asked for more help, just in case it’s needed.

“Parents or retired employees who believe they have an opportunity to help us in this space … this is the time,” she said.

Staff writers Cassidy Alexander, Vanessa McCray and Josh Reyes contributed to this report.