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Pender County Schools works through staff shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 absences

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 6:31 PM EDT
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ROCKY POINT, N.C. (WECT) -As the pandemic wears on, staffing issues that school districts have faced for years only become even more challenging maneuver.

Pender County Schools is trying to fill teaching, bus driver and substitute teacher vacancies, a problem made even worse by COVID-related staff absences.

Since the start of the school year, there’s been 109 staff members out because they were exposed to the virus and 82 that had to stay home after they were diagnosed with cases of COVID-19.

Rocky Point Elementary Principal April Perkins hasn’t been in her office a lot lately. On Monday, she was doing double duty with front office staff out, and she’s spent the last two weeks back in the classroom for the first time in nine years teaching a class of second graders math, literacy and science.

“It was a great joy, and it gave me an inside look even more so with the children on their weaknesses, their strengths and just looking at a teacher’s viewpoint on how to make it all work,” said principal Perkins. “At the end of the week, they were ready for their new teacher because I was getting stricter and stricter each day.”

Over at Heide Trask High School, principal Michael Taylor is back behind the wheel. He drove a school bus full of kids home recently because of a bus driver shortage, even though its not his job.

”I would say that anything that helps our students be served at a higher level or be more successful is my job,” said principal Taylor. “We happened to have a situation where a driver wasn’t able to make it that day so it was the last group of students and in order to make sure they got home safely, I was able to take a bus already out here in the parking lot.”

The National School Transportation Association says half of the transportation coordinators in the country described their school bus driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.”

Officials have seen a decline in college of education enrollments over the years, and despite efforts to increase wages and kickstart teacher cadet programs, the nation is also seeing a teaching shortage.

Pender County Schools currently has 45 teaching vacancies. The next big waive of applicants isn’t expected until this winter.

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but with the boards decision to remove the mask mandate next week, the absences are unlikely to go away.

“There’s an extreme shortage of staffing, however at our school we’re making it work by just everyone having their hands on deck,” said Principal Perkins. “Every educator is doing our absolute best to put children first and continue to grow them and help them be successful in the next grade level and also be successful in life.”

WECT reached out to school board members today to confirm they knew about the shortage of staff and whether or not they plan on continuing to implement their mask optional policy come next Monday but no board members have responded.

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