Superintendent says Salem-Keizer schools will remain in-person despite ‘crisis-level’ staffing shortages

Students at Weddle Elementary School in Keizer. (FILE PHOTO/Keizertimes)

Superintendent Christy Perry told the Salem-Keizer school board Tuesday evening that schools would continue in-person learning despite extreme staffing shortages and student absences across the district. 

“Our community needs to know that every person in our organization is stepping up on behalf of our single most important goal right now, which is to maintain in person learning five days a week,” Perry said.  

Perry’s comments came during a Jan. 25 Salem-Keizer school board work session where she presented on staffing shortages in the district since schools have returned from winter break. The presentation highlighted just how bad staffing shortages have gotten in Salem-Keizer schools, similar to schools across the state, since the Omicron COVID surge. 

“The substitutes in the first two weeks of January was over two times what we needed every other month of the year, September through December,” Perry said. “And we are already talking about staffing shortages with our substitutes in September through December.”

In the first two weeks of January, the district has had over 800 staffing absences each day — ranging from teachers, bus drivers, administrators and more — with many of the positions remaining unfilled. The fill rate for licensed positions, which are predominantly teaching positions, was 58% for the first two weeks of January. In that period, there were between 75 to 130 unfilled licensed positions each day, according to the district’s report. 

Schools were forced to close on Jan. 14 for a non-student contact day due to “crisis-level” staffing shortages and “higher than average student absences,” according to the district website.

Staffing shortages haven’t improved much since the first two weeks of January either. A snapshot on Jan. 20 showed 767 staffing absences. No replacement was found for 64% of those absences, meaning 324 positions went unfilled. 

Perry said schools are having to move substitutes around throughout the school to ensure positions are filled.

“Every day at a school, the principal gets up, looks at their absences and says ‘I’m going to need two hours here, one hour here and three hours here,’” Perry said. 

Following Perry’s presentation, board members inquired about different ways they, or anyone in the community, could help with the mass staffing shortages. 

“The staffing shortages look really dire,” said board vice-chairwoman Ashley Carson Cottingham. “If you have specific things that the board can assist with, I think a number of us are happy to help out in schools if there’s the right place as volunteers. Just want to be supportive for all of you that are doing really hard work every day.”

Perry said that right now schools are reaching out to specific volunteers that can be “trained in all the safety procedures, they know when they’re available, they know the rules and procedures of the school.” 

Once the district is caught up on work, Perry said she’s hopeful a system can be set up where volunteers can pass criminal background checks, submit vaccine cards and then email schools with times that they can help. All volunteers in Oregon K-12 schools are currently required to be vaccinated. 

Teachers aren’t the only ones missing from classrooms either. Since the return from winter break, a large number of students are being reported as absent each day. On Jan. 21, according to the district’s public dashboard, 25% of Salem-Keizer students were reported as absent — a total of 9,830 students.  

The Salem-Keizer district’s public tracking of COVID numbers makes it difficult to pinpoint how many students are missing for COVID-related reasons. Of the top five largest districts in Oregon, which also includes Portland, Beaverton, Hillsboro and Bend-La Pine, Salem-Keizer is the only one that doesn’t publicly track total students and teachers in COVID isolation or quarantine with daily updates. 

Instead, the district releases end-of-week data on students and teachers that have contracted COVID on school grounds, which has skyrocketed since the first of the year. From September to December of this school year, 672 total students contracted COVID while “​​on-site at any or multiple SKPS schools.”

From Jan. 10 to Jan. 21, a total of eight school days, 673 students contracted COVID while at Salem-Keizer schools — an average of 84 students per day. 

Despite this spike in COVID spread within schools, Perry said that the district will continue to allow close contact extracurriculars, such as athletics. Spectator limits, however, will continue. High school athletics are allowed four spectators per participant, middle school athletics are allowed two spectators per participant and music events are limited to 50% capacity.

“Every decision we make right now, I just can’t say this enough, we’re always trying to make it with the north star of how do you keep kids in person for five days a week instruction,” Perry said. “Right now we haven’t closed a school to go into remote learning, I think that’s the best thing for our kids and we are really committed to trying to make the moves necessary to do that.”

Even with the “north star” of remaining in person five days a week, the district has already planned at least two more non-student contact days on Feb. 18 and May 20. She said that despite the district’s best efforts, parents should expect additional disruptions.

“One of my final comments would be, just to parents and families on behalf of our educators, we will see other disruptions in the schedule. I don’t know what that looks like yet, we are continuing to try to figure out what the best strategy is,” Perry said. “The disruption in schedule will either be because our educators, the person that matters most to your kids, needs more time to be fully  prepared. Or we are just in such a staffing shortage that we don’t have another solution.”

News tip? Contact reporter Joey Cappelletti at [email protected] or 616-610-3093.