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Tampa Bay's schools feel the impact of omicron as districts scramble to fill teacher shortages

teacher in class with children
U.S. Department of Education
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Sometimes Pasco schools are having to double up classes, or pull in staff members with teaching backgrounds to fill in for teachers.

In Pasco County, there were 649 teacher vacancies on Monday, with most related to COVID-19. It has forced the district to double up classes, or pull in staff members with teaching backgrounds to fill in.

The country is reeling from the impact of omicron. And Tampa Bay schools are feeling the variant’s effects.

Steve Hegarty, spokesman for Pasco County Schools, said the district was dealing with 649 teacher vacancies on Monday, with most related to COVID. He also said the substitute fill rate was down to about 50%.

"Our fill rate is generally much, much better than that,” Hegarty said. “And our need is usually much less than this. So that combination is not a good combination."

Sometimes the district's schools are having to double up classes, or pull in staff members with teaching backgrounds to fill in for teachers, he said.

"The situation is challenging. But we've been doing this for, going on close to two years," Hegarty said. "So we have some strategies in place so that when kids go home, we can keep them engaged in learning and when teachers go out we have someone who can fill in the class for them."

Other school districts are dealing with similar absences, but things are not as bad as they were during the delta variant spike.

Pinellas had 428 teacher vacancies on Monday — or nearly 6% of its teaching staff — out due to COVID. Hillsborough had 1,111 teachers absent. The district said at one point during the delta surge, more than 6,000 of its 14,270 teachers were out.

“Right now, between substitute teachers, teachers, administrators, and even some district staff, we are managing and covering for absences,” wrote Tanya Arja, district spokeswoman, in an email. “The district is starting to feel the impact and it is a concern as the community positivity rate increases.”

In Manatee, the school district has hundreds of absences of students and employees, wrote Michael Barber, spokesperson for the Manatee County School District, in an email.

“The bottom line is ... we are having to plug holes and extend resources to cover for employees who are out due to this new COVID surge,” he said.

But, Barber noted, “two factors working in our favor are that the cases and symptoms are milder and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has reduced the amount of time people have to be quarantined, especially if they are asymptomatic.”

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.