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Omicron and a teacher shortage combine to create a 'perfect storm' for Florida schools

 Principal Vernicka Rolle-Murray leads students to classrooms after breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee
Principal Vernicka Rolle-Murray leads students to classrooms after breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.

Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar says a "massive exodus" of teachers is contributing to the shortage.

Florida students are back in school this week, after the COVID omicron variant combined with the winter holidays have caused record numbers of coronavirus cases.

WMFE’s Amy Green talked with the Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar about how schools are bracing for the impact of the surge.

SPAR: What we are dealing with now in our public schools is somewhat of a perfect storm. We have had a massive exodus from the profession, both teachers and staff, which has led to more vacancies than we’ve ever seen in our schools in Florida.

Those issues have not been adequately addressed by the Legislature and by the governor, and we hope to work with them to address them.

Then you add to it the potential for increased absenteeism because of COVID as we come back here, and we could be seeing some really strenuous and difficult situations in schools across Florida, stuff we’ve never seen before.

GREEN: Do you anticipate school closures, if there aren’t enough teachers or school bus drivers because people are sick or quarantining?

I worry about absenteeism. I do not believe based on what the governor has said that there would be any school closures allowed or tolerated. And so it’s going to be a big dilemma, I think, for school districts if they have a school where a significant percentage of the faculty is absent, and they do not have staff available to cover all of those absences.

How does this look inside the classrooms? How are educators doing? How are students doing?

Well, I think we have to remember now that this is the third school year that has been impacted by COVID.

It started in the spring of 2020. So that school year was impacted. All of last school year was impacted. And of course this year we started out the year thinking things were going to be better, but of course we were faced with a spike as school started.

And here we are coming back after the winter break. Again, another spike as school is resuming. And so I think there’s a lot of uncertainty.

And again, I want to point to the disruptions in the learning because this is something where we really need the Department of Education to help, because there’s such a fixation on testing in Florida, as it relates to testing for academics, not testing for COVID.

And so with this much disruption, it’s impacting student learning. And think about it this way: A student who’s in second grade right now has not had a normal school year their entire school career, because of COVID impacting them in kindergarten, in first grade and now in second grade.

Well, what else do schools and educators need? How can parents help? How can others in the community help?

What I would hope our parents are going to do is, as they often do is, they’re going to be understanding of the fact that we’re going to do the best we can in our public schools with the lack of resources and tools that have been made available to us.

But we will do the best we can to keep learning going as best as we can, because at the end of the day we know it’s too important for our children to get the education they deserve, regardless of race, background or zip code. And regardless of what’s going on right now with this virus. We want to make sure kids are learning.

Just know that teachers and staff are just as frustrated as parents are with what’s going on. And of course the fact that schools do not have all of the tools at their disposal to keep everyone healthy and safe and to try to mitigate the spread of COVID, it’s going to be a real challenge.

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Amy Green - WMFE