Omicron puts pressure on Metro Atlanta schools

Pharmacist preps COVID-19 vaccine. Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Already, the omicron variant has severely affected schools across Georgia. 

The variant has ravaged Metro Atlanta schools as tens of thousands of students have missed school within the past month. 

 The rising number of absences has created havoc for teachers. Learning loss and overwhelming staff shortages have derailed learning across Georgia.  

While schools struggled to close the gap on much of the learning students missed in the pandemic, this issue has only gotten worse. 

As a result of the pandemic, Georgia students had lower test scores last year.  

A loss in proficiency in critical areas such as math and reading was more prevalent in the case of younger students. 

While Atlanta and Gwinnett County only saw third-grade ELA failure rates in the single digits, those rates skyrocketed into the double digits for Cobb and DeKalb county. 

Georgia’s overall test scores took a significant blow from the last school year. The percentage of failing students leaped from 2 to 9 points. 

After a spike in COVID-19 cases for the Fall, many hoped to return to normal in January. However, that hope has crumbled in the past few weeks.

Cobb and Gwinnett County were especially hit hard in this regard, as they saw 12,000 and 28,000 students miss the first day of school in January, respectively.  

Clayton County, Atlanta Public Schools, DeKalb County, and Fulton County went virtual for the first week of the January semester to combat the variant’s spread. 

Linda Boyd, principal of Gwinnett County’s Twin Rivers Middle School, said that 9% of her students were absent during January’s first week of classes. This number has more than doubled, as 4% of students are typically absent on an average day. 

Teaching students has become increasingly complex, as state assessments are just around the corner in Spring. 

The staff shortages have stretched schools thin and forced staff members to take on multiple roles. 

Administrators have had to take on teaching positions, bus drivers have had to take on more than one route, and some schools have closed briefly. 

Earlier this month, Renfroe Middle School in Decatur closed on short notice after there simply were not enough substitute teachers to fill in for missing staff. 

While moving learning to a remote environment could help ease these issues, many believe that students learn better in a classroom setting. Moving school back to a virtual environment could further hinder their learning.

The Georgia Department of Public Health introduced new rules to help with staffing issues in late December. These measures included shorter quarantine times for staff. 

Governor Brian Kemp and Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen issued a letter eliminating contact tracing requirements earlier this month. Quarantines were also made no longer mandatory after exposure to COVID-19. 

Cobb County Superintendent Chris Ragsdale was one of the first to act as he said he would not require his staff to follow previous requirements. 

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring has recently asked for more help from retired staff and former parents to help with the shortages. 

“Parents or retired employees who believe they have an opportunity to help us in this space … this is the time,” she said. 

While it is uncertain how the omicron variant will continue to affect Metro Atlanta schools, it’s only a matter of time before cases rise again.