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School are scrambling to stay open through omicron, and teachers are exhausted

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Schools around the country are scrambling to stay open, with staff and students sick amid the omicron wave. It's just the latest in a long string of pandemic disruptions. Jon Reed at member station KUER visited an elementary school in Salt Lake City where some teachers are reaching their limits.

JON REED, BYLINE: A week after winter break, things look pretty normal at Rose Park Elementary. On a recent Friday, the hallways are quiet. Kids have settled into their classrooms.

But first-grade teacher Cassandra Gaisford says it's clear her students are having a tough time. For one, half of them are out. For another, all the disruptions of the pandemic mean she's spending more of the day with lessons on basic social skills.

CASSANDRA GAISFORD: Our first graders this year who were on remote learning most of last year - they came to us like kindergarteners. And they've had a really hard time learning how to treat each other. They're always offended.

CARA CERISE: All right. If you can hear my voice, clap once.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS CLAPPING)

CERISE: If you can hear my voice, clap two times.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUDENTS CLAPPING)

REED: In Cara Cerise's third-grade classroom, kids seem eager to learn. She's up at the whiteboard about to start a multiplication lesson. But she says she's just putting on a good face for her students, trying to shield them as much as she can from what feels like never-ending pandemic disruptions.

CERISE: We can do this and collaborate and find creative solutions for a few days. But then when days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months and then months turn into school years, it's really hard. And people are getting super-burned out.

REED: She says she tries to go easy on herself, but she can't just not care because her students depend on her.

CERISE: We're just barely keeping it together - you know? - and trying to avoid a burst. And so that feels like one of the scariest parts - is, like, will the system collapse?

REED: She says the biggest issue right now is the lack of substitute teachers. The school doesn't even request them anymore.

Principal Nicole Palmer is out in the hallway at 7:55 a.m. The students start streaming in. She greets them all by name with a wave and a smile.

ROSE PALMER: Hi, Valentina (ph). Hi, Uvia (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Hi.

PALMER: Have a good day.

REED: But internally, she's taking stock of the damage. Palmer says staffing shortages are the worst she's ever seen. She said she knew hard times were coming before winter break was even over.

PALMER: My little group thread of friends are like, two teachers just called out for tomorrow. Three teachers just said they don't feel well. Should they come? - you know, asking.

REED: Today, Palmer's day began with a text at 4:55 a.m. - another teacher out. Now she's tallying the other staff.

PALMER: We have two counselors out - two of three - two teachers, the librarian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The secretary.

PALMER: The secretary's out sick. We have our custodian back. He was out sick yesterday.

REED: That's six people out, which is a lot in a school with just 280 students. But at least today Palmer won't have to teach. She had to fill in earlier this week, and that pushes all but the most essential tasks off to the next day, the next week. Third-grade teacher Cara Cerise says that makes staff feel like they can never take a day off.

CERISE: Today, for example, was my uncle's funeral, and I wasn't able to go because I knew that there would be no one to cover me here.

REED: She says it's pushing teachers to a breaking point.

Amelia Landay, who teaches fourth grade, says on the school's worst day earlier in the week, she started thinking about whether it was time to start writing her resignation letter.

AMELIA LANDAY: I love this job, and I love this school, and I love this community. But my mental health is suffering. I would cry all the time. I have headaches. I can't sleep.

REED: For now, though, she says she's just trying to keep things as consistent as possible for her students because even though they're young, they also miss the old days.

LANDAY: Do you even remember what it was like before COVID?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes.

LANDAY: Do you remember second grade at all?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: It was the golden years until COVID.

REED: The golden years, she said. But at this point, it's a distant memory.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Reed in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Reed
Jon came to KUER by way of Los Angeles, where he was a freelance reporter and production assistant for NPR member station KCRW. He received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Prior to reporting, he spent six years in the film industry as an editor and post production coordinator, and worked on everything from Hollywood blockbusters to independent documentaries. He mostly preferred the latter, until the slow gravitational pull of public radio drew him away altogether. At KUER, he covers a little bit of everything, paying special attention to quality of life issues and the economy.
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