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RSS starts sending administrators to cover classes, quarantines climb to 18%

SALISBURY — The worsening local spread of COVID-19 and a lack of alternatives mean Rowan-Salisbury Schools administrators are headed back into classrooms to help with absences.

Cases have continued to spike since the school year began in August. The district expects its mandatory mask policy will flatten the curve. The district announced last week it would take the unusual step of organizing central office staff to cover classes amid absences and a low fill rate of teacher substitutes. The first round of staff went to schools on Thursday.

Two weeks ago, the district recorded 94 student infections and 1,878 quarantines. Last week, the district recorded 282 student infections and 3,192 quarantines. Nearly 18% of the district’s students were at home due to quarantines on Friday. There were also 149 staff in quarantines and 52 positives.

Chief Student Services Officer April Kuhn said the district expects many of the students and staff who were quarantined during the first few days of school to return Monday.

The district also saw three new school clusters on Friday, bringing the total to seven. In addition to Landis Elementary, South Rowan High, Corriher Lipe Middle and Southeast Middle, RSS administrators say there are COVID-19 clusters at China Grove Elementary, China Grove Middle and West Rowan High. Clusters are defined as a minimum of five cases linked to each other. During the previous school year, the district recorded a total of two clusters.

Included in the new clusters are six students and one staff member at China Grove Elementary, 11 students and one staff member at China Grove Middle and five students and one staff member at West Rowan High.

Faced with those statistics, the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education on Monday will meet to decide whether to extend a mask mandate past Tuesday. That meeting will be 4 p.m. at the Wallace Educational Forum, 500 North Main St.

Meanwhile, RSS has created a plan to place central office staff in its highest need facilities to help cover teacher absences. There’s a rotating schedule of 12 central office staff each day. The plan includes all of the superintendent’s cabinet, lower level staff in district departments and Superintendent Tony Watlington.

There are two things at play: an increase in absences due to staff quarantines and COVID-19 infections as well as a low substitute fill rate. The district has been topping more than 250 absences with a fill rate from its substitute provider Kelly Services of about 54%. COVID-19 simply means more absences to fill and fewer substitutes to fill them.

Anthony Vann, chief operations officer for RSS, was covering an English class at North Rowan High School on Friday. Vann normally directs the nuts and bolts of the district — the transportation department, school nutrition, construction and the day-to-day management of school buildings.

Vann said he’s never served as a substitute before, but he is trying to help out when high absences are taking a toll on the district.

Most of the jobs being covered are teaching positions. Chief Schools Officer Kelly Withers said the district’s priority is preserving instructional time for students and easing the burden on teachers who are having to sacrifice planning periods to cover classrooms.

In a normal year, Withers said, the district is prepared to send staff if a school is in dire need of manpower, but this is the first time RSS has created a system to do so on a regular basis.

The district tries to have an idea of what vacancies will come up the next day and assign people from the team ahead of time, she said.

North Rowan High School Principal Meredith Williams said the system has been a great help to take some pressure off teachers at the schools.

In his first gig as a substitute teacher, Vann gave the students an idea of what he does and told them that he normally works out of the central office. He was just trying to help guide the kids any way he could as they worked through assignments.

“I do not come from a teaching background, but I’m just trying to fill in,” Vann said.

More so than Vann, secondary math coach Angie Waldo was in her element on Friday. She spent a decade as a high school math teacher before moving into administration. She was also covering an English class at North.

“Being in schools is not unusual for me because I work with math teachers,” Waldo said.

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