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CHAMPAIGN — Centennial High School makes announcements over the intercom when substitute teachers are needed at the beginning of each period. Recently, those announcements have been running long, said senior Lexie Seten.

“At fifth period, they still needed several subs five minutes after the period had already started,” she said. “It’s been normalized at this point.”

It’s a symptom of an issue that goes beyond any district — schools, many that were already short for staff, are facing serious absences in the wake of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Urbana Middle School opted for remote learning through the end of the week, amid an ongoing staff shortage.

“As of this morning, there is still a high number of staff unable to attend in-person for various reasons, this includes COVID and non-COVID absences,” said Urbana District Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum in a message to families. “We anticipate students returning to in-person learning on Tuesday, January 18, following the MLK Holiday, which was already a non-student attendance day.”

Mike Sitch, co-president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers union and an instructor at Central, went to Monday’s school board meeting to echo the early-year experiences of his fellow educators.

“We are in survival mode,” he told the board. “Each day, teachers are giving up their lunches, giving up their plan times, giving up their collaboration times to sub for each other.”

He asked for proper personal protective equipment for staff and better testing infrastructure for the schools while the community deals with rising cases.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, at least 396 of its 10,275 students, or 3.9 percent, tested positive last week, while 357 were ordered to quarantine.

Meanwhile, 93 of the district’s 1,796 staff members, or 5.2 percent, tested positive and seven had to quarantine last week.

In response to rising cases, the district recently updated its attendance protocols for in-person extracurricular events, like basketball games. All spectators must provide proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test taken in the previous 48 hours to enter.

“Too many staff are out, too many students are out, and we’re picking up the pieces to try to make it work,” Sitch told The News-Gazette on Tuesday.

Making it work can take many forms. For every kid in quarantine, a teacher has to send over schoolwork to do and respond to student and family emails.

For the teachers who’ve arrived this week to classes with less than half of their students present, it can be hard to decide what’s prudent to teach, he said.

And those who remain are taking on broader, more intense responsibilities. Teachers are often contact-tracing middlemen, relaying to administrators about who may have been exposed to a classmate who tested positive, Sitch said.

Benjamen Gulley, president of the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union, which represents hundreds of bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria staff, nurses and more, echoed Sitch’s sentiments.

“The common struggles this last week revolve around having lots of goals that the district has set, and we agree are important, but not having the time or people to reach them,” Gulley said.

This has meant teaching assistants who haven’t been able to spend enough time with students as they’d like, nurses who’ve had to spend extra time contact tracing, or bus drivers who’ve had to drop routes because there’s no one to cover them, Gulley said.

To combat rising cases, schools have raised their safety precautions, which often falls on support staff members to execute.

“If I had to pick what last week proved to me — even though we are exhausted, and at this point, crisis management kicked in long ago — it’s that we have to stay focused on doing what we know works,” Gulley said. “Giving up or dropping out or just becoming resigned to the new reality, it’s not an option.

“Some places have that, schools do not. The kids deserve better and the staff have to figure out how to get it to them.”

Seten said her classes have been mostly full and well-taught to start the year. She gave props to her instructors for getting through required coursework despite added workloads.

“It’s hard to have a lot of hope right now, but you see teachers and students doing it and sometimes you don’t have a choice but to hope along with them,” Sitch said. “In some ways, young people seem to be a lot more resilient than adults: some are struggling, some are excelling and lots are finding their way.

“I just hope we have the personnel and time to try and get to those kids who are struggling.”

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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