Jan 7, 2022 - COVID

Austin school desks empty amid Omicron surge

Illustration of an apple wearing a covid mask.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Classrooms are feeling a lot emptier nowadays.

Driving the news: Central Texas school districts are reporting a big drop in teacher and student attendance amid the Omicron surge.

By the numbers: The Austin Independent School District reports that student attendance Wednesday, the first day back from winter break, was 83.93%

  • That's down from 94.39% the first day back from winter break in 2021.

Hays Consolidated Independent School District reported 85.35% of its student body in attendance on Tuesday, its first day post-holidays. The district typically has about 95% attendance, according to district spokesman Tim Savoy, who attributed the absences to the Omicron variant.

Round Rock ISD spokesperson Jenny Caputo told Axios that student attendance was off by more than 10% compared to the same time a year ago.

Meanwhile: As in industries from airlines to hospitals, schools are seeing a staffing shortage.

  • The Hays district also reported staff shortages for the first day back, with 254-286 staff absences per day this week. Hays typically sees roughly 180-186 absences of its 3,200 employees.
  • At Leander ISD this week, 242 staff members were out due to COVID — and 136 of those positions required substitutes.
  • In Round Rock, 420 teachers were absent at the start of school this week, compared to 230 on the first day of spring semester in 2021.
  • Substitute requests from teachers leapt from 293 the first day back in 2021 to 384 this Wednesday at AISD.
  • The Austin district is also experiencing bus driver shortages due to COVID — but all routes are being covered.
    • "We plan to combine routes and everyone who is licensed to drive a school bus will be driving," Cristina Nguyen, an AISD spokesperson, told Axios. "We may experience some delays and will notify families as needed."
  • Even cafeteria services are affected, with AISD pivoting staffing based on needs at specific kitchen locations.
  • The Lake Travis school district alerted parents this week to transportation disruptions due to a shortage of bus drivers, according to the American-Statesman.

What they're saying: "We know that in-person learning is the best way for our students to learn," Nguyen said. "We'll continue to be agile and support our students and staff when they need to be home; however, our goal is to support all students in person as we focus on academic achievement."

  • Savoy, the Hays ISD spokesman, agreed that in-person teaching is best for students' learning and mental health.
    • "Being at home and not with peers or teachers has had a marked negative impact on students," Savoy said, adding the district has seen "significant learning loss" and increased testing and failure rates throughout the pandemic.

Yes, but: ​​School districts are encouraging testing — and with the highly transmissible Omicron variant in the ether, that's leading to lots of positives.

  • Back-to-school AISD COVID-19 testing earlier this week yielded a 14.5% overall positivity rate.

Between the lines: A new state law expands funding for remote learning but leaves out poor-performing students.

  • "At this point remote learning is really not an option for us," Leander schools superintendent Bruce Gearing told KVUE.

Zoom out: Nationally, some districts — like Atlanta, D.C. and Cleveland — have been forced to delay in-person returns, as schools ramp up testing requirements.

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