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Extra absences force some reopening Clark County schools to scramble

The Clark County School District reported an above-average number of employee and student absences on Wednesday, the first day of classes following winter break and the first test of how schools will fare in the midst of a rapid surge of coronavirus around the valley.

The nation’s fifth-largest school district, with more than 300,000 students and 40,000 employees, said it saw an 83 percent student attendance rate Wednesday, down from a 90 percent average so far this school year.

And 1,643 employees were absent — nearly 18 percent above the average of 1,396, the district said.

It’s unknown how many of those absences were due to COVID-19 related illnesses or quarantines.

“There are several factors as to why an employee may be utilizing absence leave, including vacation time, sick leave, such as feeling ill, planned doctors appointments, maternity leave or other planned leave,” the district said in a statement to the Review-Journal.

In a Tuesday message to parents, the district said it will “proactively monitor school staff absences” and deploy central office employees to help at schools if necessary.

On Wednesday, the central office sent 26 employees to help at 15 schools, it said.

Most absences of the school year

One of those campuses was Bailey Middle School in Las Vegas, where Principal Darryl Wyatt said he had 15 licensed teachers absent Wednesday, the most during this school year.

The school wasn’t able to get any substitutes, but the district sent two central office administrators to assist, he said.

Wyatt said he has 16 licensed teachers due to be absent Thursday and substitutes hadn’t been assigned to any of them. He also hadn’t heard from the district about whether assistance will be available again.

The highest number of teachers to call in sick this year prior to Wednesday was 12, Wyatt said, adding that it was a “very isolated situation” on a Friday during the first semester.

Typically the school had about five to seven teacher absences midweek and seven to nine on Mondays and Fridays during first semester, he said.

Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas had about 16 teachers out Wednesday, Principal Isaac Stein said.

“My staff takes precautions, so as challenging as it is to cover classes, our staff has shown their responsibility by not coming to work sick,” he said.

At Spring Valley High School, 10 licensed employees and six support staff were absent Wednesday, Principal Tara Powell said. “Not too bad,” she added.

The school district is already facing a serious staffing shortage, with about 850 licensed employee vacancies as of mid-December. The problem with teachers has worsened since school started in early August.

There are also hundreds of support staff vacancies, including for substitute teachers and school bus drivers.

Problems with COVID hotline

Staffing also may have been an issue with district hotlines for parents and employees to report COVID-19 cases, exposures or possible symptoms.

But many who said they attempted to call in complained on social media that it was very difficult to get through.

“As expected after the long break, call volume to the Employee Health Line was higher than normal,” the district said in a statement. “CCSD worked to adjust staffing to increase efficiency and the dedicated staff is being thorough to ensure the health and safety of students and employees.”

The statement didn’t include specifics about call volumes or wait times for the hotlines.

The school district contracts with emocha Mobile Health for a COVID-19 symptom screening tool that employees use every day before reporting to work. Depending on how they answer questions, such as whether they’re experiencing certain symptoms, they receive a color-coded digital badge.

If their account is flagged as yellow, it can trigger actions such as being required to stay at home or get tested before getting cleared to return to work.

Vicki Kreidel, a second-grade teacher and president of the National Education Association of Southern Nevada, said she heard from teachers Tuesday, a staff development day, and Wednesday about problems with the employee hotline.

One teacher told her she called more than 200 times trying to get through and kept track because she doesn’t want to get in trouble.

Others weren’t been able to get through at all, Kreidel said, while others left messages and didn’t received a call back.

The end result is they’re not able to resolve their yellow badges in order to get back to work, Kreidel said.

Meanwhile, seven Catholic schools run by the Diocese of Las Vegas were operating with two days of distance learning on Tuesday and Wednesday. In-person classes were expected to resume Thursday.

Parents divided over return to class

Parents expressed differing opinions on the wisdom of returning to in-person instruction while the pandemic is raging.

Williams Elementary School parent and P.E. assistant Demetrius Richard wasn’t concerned about sending a child back to school.

“I think we’re off to a fresh start,” Richard said. “I think it will be great to start over and keep the numbers down for the New Year, and just follow all protocols and keep the school safe and clean.”

But Sequoyah Tomlinson, a nurse who moved to the Las Vegas Valley from Wisconsin about a year ago whose daughter is a junior at Mojave High School, said she doesn’t think the time is right for face-to-face instruction.

“I feel like they should go virtual,” she said. “… I’m all for the kids being in school … but right now I feel like this variant (is) going on and it’s spread so quickly that the children should actually at least do virtual for right now until we can get it stabilized and calmed down.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter. Review-Journal staff members Kevin Cannon and Glivell Piloto contributed to this report.

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