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Thousands of teachers, students absent as Omicron ravages Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Schools in Florida are reporting droves of absences among teachers and students this week, a sign that the highly contagious Omicron variant is already wrecking the budding new semester.

With Covid-19 cases skyrocketing throughout the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis is pledging to keep schools open and in-person classes churning without any mask mandates or new restrictions. The DeSantis administration instead is messaging that asymptomatic people should resist being tested for the coronavirus as hundreds of students and teachers miss the first days of school in 2022.

“If you don’t have symptoms, you’re not a case,” state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo said Tuesday at an event in Naples.

In Miami Dade County, Florida’s largest school district, some 10 percent of instructional staff, 2,100 employees including counselors, missed the first day of school on Monday, according to school officials. It’s impossible to say whether every absence was tied to Covid-19, but for comparison, Miami Dade recorded 1,333 staff absences on the first day back from winter break in 2021.

More than 300 instructional staffers returned to school on Tuesday, officials said.

Broward County was missing some 1,740 teachers on Tuesday, poking a sizable hole in the districts staffing, school officials said. The school district could find substitutes for 35 percent of classrooms, leading schools to deploy campus and district staffers to fill in the gaps.

The trend is similar in central Florida, where schools in Osceola County recorded 314 teacher absences so far this week compared to 180 absences at the same time last year, according to school officials. That represents nearly 8 percent of the district’s teaching staff.

The teacher absences are putting a strain on local schools, with education officials warning they may be forced to “double up” on classrooms. Outgoing Miami schools chief Alberto Carvalho taught a high school science class on Tuesday as substitutes and bus drivers prove to be in short supply across the state amid the Covid-19 surge. More than 150 bus drivers called out sick on Tuesday in Broward County alone.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Carvalho tweeted Tuesday.

School leaders in Leon County were optimistic that schools will be close to fully staffed when students show up for class on Wednesday. Schools superintendent Rocky Hanna estimated that the district was down three or four teachers each campus during a district workday Tuesday.

“I was expecting worse,” Hanna told reporters Tuesday. “I’m happy to say it looks like the vast majority of our employees will be able to return to welcome our kids back tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Osceola County reported that some 23 percent of students — 12,660 — were absent from school on Monday, more than double the district’s daily norm in December, school officials said. Schools in Miami saw an attendance rate of 82.4 percent on Monday, marking a slight downturn — 6 percentage points — from a typical year. Broward County tallied 24,700 student absences on Tuesday, down from 41,700 absences on Monday.

Schools in Florida are explicitly banned from mandating masks for students in state law, leaving officials with limited coronavirus precautions at their disposal to combat the Omicron surge. Many school districts implemented employee and visitor masking requirements in hopes of reducing cases.

The DeSantis administration continues to shut down the idea of adding coronavirus restrictions in schools during the current uptick in cases. On Tuesday, the Republican governor criticized schools that are requiring teachers and students to test negative for Covid-19 to attend school.

“It’s not good policy to use testing as a tool to basically limit opportunity and limit people’s ability to get an education,” DeSantis told reporters in Naples.

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