Shortages at North Carolina schools lead to stress, exhaustion and some creativity

By Sarah Nagem

Laura Bailey, a school principal in Scotland County, has been putting a piece of notebook paper on her bedside table each night. On it are the names of staff members at Laurel Hill Elementary who won’t be at work the following day. 

“That way if I get a phone call or a text message in the middle of the night, I can go ahead and add that person to the list,” Bailey said. “It’s like a puzzle, and every day a different piece is missing. And you have to figure out how you’re going to fill that spot.” 

Schools across southeastern North Carolina have been scrambling since students returned to classrooms earlier this month amid a surge in COVID cases. Educators say it has taken persistence and creativity to find enough adults to cover classes, serve lunches, drive buses and conduct contact tracing. 

Bailey, who was named Principal of the Year in Scotland County in 2019, said about 25 of the 115 staff members at her school were absent one day this month. 

Joanna Hunt, principal of Pembroke Elementary School in Robeson County, said her school was in a similar predicament. On Jan. 14, nearly 20% of the school’s staff members were out. 

“Honestly, we pieced it together. As long as we have coverage,” Hunt said, her voice trailing off as she prepared for students to leave that Friday afternoon. Dismissal took about 15 minutes less time than usual, she said, because so many students were absent. 

Mariah Locklear, a first-grade teacher at Pembroke Elementary School in Robeson County, helps with carpool dismissal on Jan. 14.
Photo by Sarah Nagem

Bailey and Hunt both said they have leaned heavily on teacher assistants to fill in for regular classroom teachers who are out sick or in quarantine. Hunt called the TAs in her school “our saving grace.” 

“That’s been super helpful,” Bailey said of the roughly 20 teacher assistants at Laurel Hill Elementary. Some of the TA positions, she said, were the result of federal COVID funding for the school district. 

But most middle schools and high schools don’t have teacher assistants, further complicating staffing issues. 

Two high schools in Bladen County Schools – East Bladen and West Bladen – switched to remote learning the week of Jan. 10-14. Officials said the change was “due to the availability of staff as a result of positive COVID-19 cases and exposures.” 

Elizabethtown Middle School switched to virtual for one day as a result of a staff shortage, along with two elementary schools. 

A change in state law says schools can switch to remote learning only if there is not enough staff coverage. The rule makes it nearly impossible for an entire district to make the switch. 

Waiting game

With another school week underway, educators say they are desperately waiting for this latest COVID surge, which is linked to the highly contagious omicron variant, to go away as quickly as it arrived. 

“We’re very hopeful and optimistic,” said Jason Atkinson, superintendent of Bladen County Schools. He later added, “It’s almost like Russian roulette, because you never know.” 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the White House, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday he was confident cases would peak by mid-February throughout much of the country. 

There are already some signs of improvement. In Robeson County public schools, 140 staff members and 636 students tested positive for COVID the week of Jan. 14-20, according to the district’s dashboard. That’s down from 153 staff members and 693 students the prior week. 

The numbers were also down for staff and students who were exposed to the virus. 

But teachers and other staff are tired, and some members of the Robeson County school board expressed concerns this month about the time spent on contact tracing. 

“If you have a child in your classroom that is positive, forget teaching,” board member Dwayne Smith said during the board’s Jan. 11 meeting. “That teacher has got to spend more time on trying to find out who that child has been exposed to. … This is what’s wearing our staff out.” 

Robeson school officials said the district has struggled to find applicants for nursing jobs designed to handle contact tracing. 

The district has three open positions for nurses, said schools spokesman Gordon Burnette. The school board this month approved the hiring of seven specially funded certified nursing assistants, but several of those positions are also open. 

Pembroke Elementary School had its own full-time nurse until October, when the person resigned, Hunt said. Now the school shares a nurse with several other schools. 

Ricky Bullard, a data manager at Pembroke Elementary School in Robeson County, helps direct carpool dismissal on Jan. 14.
Photo by Sarah Nagem

When someone at the school tests positive for the virus, Hunt said, a COVID team springs into action. Hunt said she is on the team, along with a social worker, assistant principal, guidance counselor and nurse to contact trace. 

“We really have not bothered (teachers) with that part,” she said. 

Day by day

For some schools, staff shortages this month have been worse than at any point during the pandemic. 

“The last three weeks have been really tough in terms of just coming up with a plan,” Bailey said. In some cases, she said, assistant principals have helped serve lunch. 

Things became so dire that N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said state employees could use their annual 24 hours of community service leave to work as substitute teachers or staff members in schools. 

Still, educators are figuring it out day by day. 

“Our folks have been very cooperative,” Atkinson said. 

Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem