SLSD staff, students navigate 2021 challenges

Small schools like Dorena Elementary School are eager to fill the substitute teacher and educational assistant pool amid a staffing shortage.

With the Oct. 18 vaccine deadline for school district staff in the rearview mirror, South Lane School District (SLSD) is still finding its center of gravity amid a staffing crisis and a challenging environment for mental wellness for both students and staff.

In August, Governor Kate Brown announced that all adults in K-12 school campus communities and all healthcare workers must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18, though religious and medical exceptions could be granted.

Despite retaining most of its workforce after the deadline, SLSD is not out of the woods on the staffing issue yet.

“We’re still dealing with it,” said SLSD Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, adding that, though a challenge, the situation looks manageable as solutions are being implemented.

SLSD was able to keep much of its staff largely due to allowing religious and medical exceptions to the vaccine mandate — a leniency not all districts have been willing to grant.

Still, other hurdles have impeded a smooth transition into the year.

Through the school year, there have been sporadic positive COVID cases causing absences. Near the end of October, the district reported at that point in time some 14 positive cases in the schools, though it has not released specifics on whether they were staff or students.

“I know people have been frustrated about, you know, ‘Why are you not showing transparency,’ but we have FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) requirements and we have to make sure that the data doesn’t reveal staff or students who are out and reveal that they have COVID,” said Curtis.

With flu season in full swing as well, staff numbers have seen periodic dips. These dips have had impact in some areas where there are already lower numbers of staff, such as in Dorena Elementary School.

“When you’re in a small school, if you’re missing a teacher and two educational assistants, you’re pretty handicapped,” said Curtis, adding that staff have been exhausted trying to fill others’ spots. “We’re trying to make sure people have breaks and lunches and duties are covered and all of that, so it has been challenging.”

Transportation, too, as a high-turnover department, has been a struggle to fill. The district started the school year down six drivers and has had trouble meeting transportation needs.

“I would say transportation is the department that had the most issues with mandates, especially the vaccine mandate, though, we actually are getting staff from other districts now,” said Curtis.

One local resident who has a special needs child in the district told The Sentinel she is disappointed with the busing system and worries how the changes and new teachers have troubled her son.

“Nobody is communicating and my son has suffered,” she said. “Also, the bus is a joke. Not making them sanitize before they get off and on, not skipping seats, letting kids from different households sit next to each other.”

While the district has been working on addressing busing needs, Curtis pointed out that there is also an argument around verbiage at play when it comes to allowing exceptions to the mandate.

“For people who don’t like the mandate, they want us to give them an exemption. And we can only give an exception,” she said. “We can’t exempt people from the law, but the law allows us to provide an exception for those who have religious beliefs that are contrary [to the mandate] or for medical reasons.”

To get ahead of the issue, the district started the school year with surveys for classified and certified staff.

Out of 161 total surveyed, nearly 60 asked for exceptions. The majority were for religious reasons, with less than five for medical requests. Curtis said she personally reviewed all requests and, in the end, all were accepted.

Leniency was also granted for those who had recently caught COVID. Though some expressed they already had natural immunity, they were still required to vaccinate.

The question of the efficacy of natural immunity versus the vaccine has been a sticking point in the national discourse. Last week, on Oct. 29, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) weighed in for the first time in a detailed science report.

“Available evidence shows that fully vaccinated individuals and those previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 each have a low risk of subsequent infection for at least six months,” stated the CDC’s summary.

However, the report noted that vaccines are more consistent in their protection and offer a large boost in antibodies for people previously infected.

“Data are presently insufficient to determine an antibody titer threshold that indicates when an individual is protected from infection,” the report said.

Still, the CDC recommends that previously infected individuals get a vaccine and suggests for those who were treated with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma to wait 90 days before getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

For the handful of SLSD staff caught in this 90-day stasis, the district allowed temporary medical exceptions.

By Oct. 19, the district lost only seven staff members to the mandate.

On the other side of the issue, however, were staff with strong feelings about allowing exceptions to the mandate in the first place. Both educator associations representing staff in the district supported the mandate.

“So that created another barrier for them in terms of having someone to advocate for them,” said Curtis about those seeking exceptions. “And so I wanted to remove that negativity about it and say, ‘Hey, I’ll just come listen to you. I’ll work with you on it and I’ll work on it with your principal.’”

Overall, Curtis found the strategy to be a success. Despite losing seven employees, many more were able to keep their jobs, a point she said she has received tearful thanks for accomplishing.

Including those allowed exceptions, that put South Lane district at 99.9 percent compliance with the mandate by the deadline.

Still, those who are unhappy with the prospect of working alongside unvaccinated staff point to other area districts’ stricter approaches.

Eugene School District took Oct. 18 off for a “vaccine mandate transition” day to adjust to the loss of staff.

But despite retaining a large part of the district workforce, staffing still remains an issue. In particular, South Lane is lacking a solid pool of substitutes for its classified positions and is need of mental health counselors.

There currently some strategies at work to address this, however. On top of a recent netting of around two dozen applicants for substitute and educational assistant positions from a job fair, South Lane is considering hiring on the staff looking for work from other districts following the Oct. 18 deadline.

It might be some time before the strategy takes effect, though.

Certified staff must go through the school board for a termination and Fair Dismissal law requires that there be a 20-day waiting period between the day a letter of termination is given and the day the board takes action.

In the meantime, the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission allows the district to employ substitutes on an emergency license. Although four-year degree requirements are temporarily being dropped, applicants must still go through checkpoints like background checks and fingerprinting.

“We are only considering people in that category that are already and just about done with their student teaching,” said Curtis.

As the district builds its substitute numbers, there is also the less visible but nonetheless critical component of mental health to consider as students and staff navigate a very novel and trying year on campus.

“People are asking about curriculum. We haven’t got any new curriculum. What we’re focusing on is creating those learning environments that are warm, inviting, inclusive for every student – whatever it is that it takes,” said Curtis. “We like to take our focus from what teachers and administrators are telling us. And they are telling us it’s the mental health of our kids.”

One principal, she said, described the current situation as having “no breathing space between incidents,” adding to staff fatigue.

“I think the things that are more concerning to the teachers are the stories kids share about their personal lives,” said Curtis. “And the teachers know that in the sharing, they’re hearing trauma and pain.”

As students carry this burden to campus, there is increasing pressure on teachers to solve these issues. Add to that a lack of counselors on hand and the fatigue, then, is self-perpetuating.

“What principals are telling us is [teachers] are already burnt out,” said Curtis. “And usually they don’t get to that spot by May.”

There has been increasing pressure from parents as well for the district to provide mental health counseling.

For SLSD elementary schools, lack of funding has left them without counselors for years. However, the district is planning on hiring counselors for elementary schools over the next month and has just added additional support in secondary schools where there are now two Social Emotional Learning (SEL) specialists with experience and expertise in mental health and behavior crisis intervention.

Their role will be to ensure full implementation of a social-emotional learning curriculum from kindergarten to 12th grade.

There is also room in grant funding for a mental health therapist, however a current shortage in the field has hampered progress in finding a candidate.

“We had already identified that we were going to spend some of our Student Investment Act money on mental health supports, because we already needed them,” said Curtis. “There was already a crisis before. COVID just made it worse.”

The district has adopted a social-emotional curriculum, too, for both secondary and elementary schools. Some of the activities include holding class meetings, talking about emotions, discussion how one might respond to situations that are negative and teaching social-emotional skills.

One characteristic Curtis hopes to see come out of these practices is resiliency.

“What we want is resilient students who have grit and who care about one another,” she said.

A focus on wellness for adults is also key to getting through the year. For this, the district is planning on bringing an expert on board who can work with staff to plan activities for them.

“You know, some people talk about mindfulness, some yoga, some talk about exercising. It should include all of it, because all of that makes you well,” said Curtis. “And I think that’s one thing we’ve all learned from COVID is that wellness isn’t just physical wellness, right? It’s eating better. It’s so many tiny things. Interacting better. Acknowledging that we need social engagement. That’s part of who we are. And how do we do that in a way that builds up one another, instead of this focus on all the negative?”

In a recent newsletter, SLSD recommended tips for engaging children in ways that consider their mental health:

• Listen to students’ stories and ask them how they feel about it 

• Ask them what will help them at the moment and ongoing

• Give them a vocabulary and permission to talk about a wide range of emotions

• Affirm and normalize many ways of feeling

• Learn about the impact of trauma and protect children from trauma

• Monitor and limit our students’ access to media, especially social media that isn’t age appropriate

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