COVID causes drop in attendance, sub shortage

Since students’ return after winter break, there has been a shortage of substitute teachers. Some days, multiple classes meet in the gym so an adult can monitor more than one class at a time.

Photo by Alejandra Rodriguez.

Since students’ return after winter break, there has been a shortage of substitute teachers. Some days, multiple classes meet in the gym so an adult can monitor more than one class at a time.

Alejandra Rodriguez, Editor-in-Chief

Freshman Nicole White spent her winter break isolated in her bedroom opening Christmas presents over FaceTime. 

“My sisters and my dad were the ones who caught COVID and had to stay in their rooms the entire time,” White said. “Almost the entire break really. That was pretty hard because I couldn’t see them at all. You just had to worry a lot, and we were always wearing masks.” 

White says the separation was stressful because she couldn’t take care of her loved ones. “I was worried for my family because they were all sick, and even over FaceTime you could see that they weren’t feeling well,” White said.

When she returned to school, White says she became even more aware of the need to follow COVID protocols.

“I realized that a lot of people pull their masks down during class and I’m like ‘Why would you ever do that? You could get COVID. It’s a real thing,’” White said.

Although White was able to return on Jan. 3, she saw a lot of empty desks after winter break. Some students found notes on their classroom doors instructing them to go to the gym because the school was unable to provide a substitute for all of the absent teachers.

Principal Laura Rubio said an average of five substitute jobs were not filled for the first two weeks of January. Some teachers volunteer to cover classes during their conference periods, but the school is always scrambling to make sure classrooms are supervised.

“At max we’ve had 13 staff out at any given time.” Rubio said. “Four to six of them we haven’t been able to get substitutes so we have all been volunteering or we gather in the gym.” 

The school has 1,903 enrolled students. The first week of January, the school averaged 380 absences a day. Last week the school averaged 300 absences a day. 

Freshman Christina Kharrat was one of those missing students. 

“I found out that my grandma tested positive and she was staying with us at the time,” Kharrat said. ”It went to the whole house and we all stayed home and I knew I would get behind with school.” 

Freshman Christina Kharrat. (Photo by Alejandra Rodriguez.)

The experience of keeping up with school while at home reminded Kharrat of her junior high experience.  

“It didn’t feel like break and it didn’t feel like school at the same time,” Kharrat said. “I would wake up and try to do some homework on my chromebook. It reminded me of early lockdown when we didn’t know what Zoom was and we were just getting assigned things.”

Kharrat appreciated how her teachers were sympathetic and made sure assignments were accessible for the students who were at home. 

“My teachers were really big on communication,” Kharrat said. “When I knew that—especially for biology they just move a lot faster—I couldn’t finish an assignment, I would tell my teacher, ‘I’m really sorry. I was absent and I don’t think I can get these assignments done when they are supposed to be due.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You were absent.’ So my teachers were pretty accommodating but my grades did drop just because I wasn’t present in class.”

Being flexible was a priority for English teacher Michael Alvarez who was not at school for a week because he contracted COVID over the break. 

“When I looked at attendance—which I didn’t even think about—I realized, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not just missing school. Now all kinds of students are missing as well,” Alvarez said. “I had to go into a frame of mind of, ‘Oh, I need to kind of start treating this like when everyone was at home,’ so I started to make it all accessible online.” 

Alvarez’s classes met in the gym the first day after break. “I thought there was a possibility that the kids might be in the gym the whole week. Then I thought, ‘Well then this is going to be a wasted week. It’s going to be difficult to do anything in the gym,’” Alvarez said. “Again, I could still assign a book and they can just read it on their own, but that would be difficult to do and then I had to think, ‘Where does that put us in the curriculum for the semester? Are we going to be able to get everything we need to get in before AP and IB testing?’”

Ultimately, Alvarez’s classes had a substitute for his classes, but his students still suffered, especially his freshman class. 

“About half the class, it’s clear, did not do the work that first week,” Alvarez said. “If they didn’t have the instructions maybe it was difficult for them to do the assignments.” 

Science teacher Kristen Cruz quarantined for 10 days but was fortunate to have her former student teacher Sean Dachler substitute for her classes.

“I don’t think my students really suffered in class because he was able to pretty much teach very similarly to what I would’ve done,” Cruz said. “I wasn’t as stressed because of the sub shortage and I know other teachers were not as lucky.”

Students and families can ask for COVID tests at the attendance windows in the front office. The box includes two On/Go COVID-19 test cassettes, two nasal swabs, two reagent vials, and 2 vial caps. (Photo by Alejandra Rodriguez.)

Principal Rubio says that the school is trying to be flexible with student absences, but if a student is going to opt for a long-term stay at home, the student’s family needs to consider the isierra online school option. 

“We are trying to be understanding these first few weeks but eventually if students or parents are choosing for them to stay home we still do have the isierra online option especially for those students that are thinking they are just going to be doing this all semester,” Rubio said.

This semester the school has introduced new safety protocols and resources for students and staff.

To help students determine if they need to stay home, the school is providing free COVID test kits that can be obtained at the attendance windows.

The district is adjusting COVID protocols and has limited the number of audience members at sporting events in the gym to 500 people, which includes players and performers. 

“We are going to have to do something similar to what we did last year,” Rubio said. “Participants like the cheerleaders, the band, dance, and the athletes are allowed two people in. We know your family is coming and then whatever tickets are left over is how many people we can let in.”

The district has not decided an end date to the 500-limit audience. 

The school has canceled any non-essential gatherings like assemblies, but ASB students have rescheduled the Sadies Hawkins dance for March 5. ASB hopes to host Mr. Fullerton April 1 and Prom is scheduled for April 30. However, according to Rubio, students need to be flexible. The ASB events are not canceled but students must be prepared for things to be rescheduled if necessary.

“As a district we are trying to limit [outdoor events] because we don’t want you guys to gather while the COVID numbers are high especially because the [CDC guidelines] still say masks are optional outside,” Rubio said. ”If we know that there is a lot of exposure we don’t want to put you guys in that situation.”

According to Rubio, the main priority is making sure students self monitor. If a student feels sick, stay home. If a student is waiting for test results, stay home. Additionally, students should be filling out the qualtrics survey daily before coming to school. 

“[School] is much more regulated than when you are at the mall or wherever you have a lot of people not wearing masks,” Rubio said. “I believe school is a safe place and we are doing everything we can to keep it safe and healthy for you.”

Reporters Sofia Matin, Osvaldo Munoz, Hannah Ramos, and Anna Schleicher contributed to this story.