Dennis warns remote learning could be option as more students, staff out due to Covid

The surge of COVID-19 cases attributed to the fast-spreading omicron variant could lead to remote learning as a temporary option in the near future, Stanly County Schools Superintendent Jarrod Dennis said Friday morning.

“Right now, we have enough people, but we are stretched very thin and to be honest, it’s not getting any better right now,” he said, noting there are staff shortages at many schools across the district. Teachers have had to adjust on the fly, taking on additional responsibilities such as covering classes during their planning periods. There is also a shortage of substitute teachers, Dennis said, which only makes the problem worse.

For the last week of school before holiday break, more than 800 students and staff were quarantined either because they were positive or they were exposed to someone positive. Once the district updates its Covid dashboard next week, which will show data for this week, the numbers will likely be higher.

The news is not surprising given that omicron is more transmissible than the delta variant, which caused scores of teachers and students to isolate at home during the fall. Schools across the country have been forced to return to remote learning during the first week of 2022. More than 3,000 schools have already been disrupted, defined as not offering in-person instruction, over the past few days, according to the data service Burbio, which has been tracking school calendars since 2020.

“If it gets to the point to where we don’t have enough staff or if it’s a safety issue where we don’t have enough coverage, you may have classes that have to go virtual,” Dennis said.

As teachers begin their third calendar year dealing with the pandemic, Dennis said the morale is not very high.

“Across the entire state, across the nation, people are just — they have Covid fatigue, they are worn out,” he said. “And especially, it gets exacerbated when you have instances like these, to where you’ve got teachers having to use planning time or whatever free time they have to cover for their colleagues who unfortunately had to quarantine because of either exposure or a positive result.”

Participating in Duke’s test-to-stay study

In order to hopefully reduce quarantine days for students and staff, the board of education on Tuesday approved Stanly County Schools to participate in a study by Duke University called Test to Stay, which is gaining traction across the state.

Students and staff who have been exposed either at school or in the community can take part in the study, which is completely voluntary.

Participants in schools who have been exposed to the virus receive a rapid antigen test for COVID-19 on the day of exposure (day 1) and at days 3 and 5 following initial known exposure.

If the COVID-19 tests are negative, the participants can remain in school, as long as they wear a mask for 10 days. A positive COVID-19 test or the development of symptoms on any day after exposure would require isolation according to requirements outlined in the NC Strong Schools Toolkit.

The study is free and provides COVID-19 tests to the districts. The data gathered through the study is used to identify safety measures.

Dennis has already contacted Duke researchers to let them know the board has approved of the district’s participation. The district should soon receive the tests and will train the nursing staff. He hopes to begin the study early next semester.

“Hopefully toward the end of next week we will have everything in place so that after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we can have everything ready to go,” Dennis said.

Duke began the study with a handful of districts with universal mask mandates but has since broadened it to include those with voluntary mandates, including Cabarrus and Gaston counties.

Dennis said he’s heard from several people who have already expressed interest in the school system participating in the test-to-stay study.

Hopeful for the future

Even with new cases and hospitalizations on the rise throughout the state, Dennis is optimistic that the current Covid wave will soon pass and when it does, students and staff will have more stability for the next semester and they can work to regain some of the learning that has been lost over the past two years.

“My hope is that this variant peaks out sooner than later so that we can get our kids and staff back to school,” he said. “I’m hoping our kids are starting to recover some of this lost learning. If we can get our hands wrapped around the lost learning and try to get kids caught up, I think we will have done some good work. That’s really what we’re focusing on.”

Dennis is grateful for the resiliency and dedication of his staff, especially the teachers, who he says have done their best to provide for their students during the pandemic.

“I couldn’t have wished for a better staff and group of teachers,” he said. “I know it’s been tough, but everybody’s really pitched in and they’ve done a great job.”