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Nearly a quarter of Spokane Public Schools students were absent Wednesday as districts continue to struggle in surge

Megan Harkness, left, a DI Paraeducator at Longfellow Elementary chats with Linda Miller a lead school nurse with Spokane Public Schools, right, about her medical history before Harkness received the first dose of a Covid 19 vaccine in February 2021 at Rogers High School in Spokane, Wash. Schools across the region are struggling with the recent omicron surge that has sickened hundreds of students and staff. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane Public Schools is feeling the strain of the omicron variant.

Meeting for the first time since Dec. 15, the district’s school board members heard from staff that the district is facing acute staffing shortages in almost every area of its operations.

“We are experiencing a significant strain in staffing because of the people we have in quarantine, in keeping the learning experience going,” Superintendent Adam Swinyard said.

Swinyard said the district is monitoring the staff shortage “multiple times a day and watching the numbers steadily increase.”

However, Swinyard all but ruled out a return to remote learning.

“That would be a last resort,” said Swinyard, who cited factors such as nutrition and staff training on technology as reasons to avoid going remote.

Only last week, Swinyard kept schools open during inclement weather, partly because some students would go hungry otherwise.

Instead, Swinyard said, the district is examining the possibility of “creating some pauses in the school calendar” to give staff levels a chance to recover.

Those numbers have reached a critical point.

According to numbers obtained Wednesday by The Spokesman-Review, one out of eight staff have been absent in recent days.

The student absentee rate is much higher. On Monday, 18% were absent. That rose to 19% on Tuesday and 24% on Wednesday.

It’s unclear how many of those absences are COVID-related.

The district posts a COVID-19 dashboard only once a week. The most recent, posted on Friday, showed 58 “current positive cases” – defined as “any positive case in which the individual has tested positive and entered the school building for any amount of time.”

The district does not report to the public the overall number of COVID infections among its approximately 30,000 students and 3,000 employees.

Staffing is especially short in the areas of transportation and custodial services.

Durham School Services, the district’s transportation provider, has recently lost eight more drivers. However, 16 others are in training.

Other districts continue to see significant jumps in cases.

COVID metrics rose to record levels Wednesday at Central Valley and Mead, which update their dashboards daily.

Central Valley, which has an enrollment of about 14,500, reported 519 cases in the last 10 days, a sharp jump from the 291 from Tuesday.

Of the 519, almost 200 occurred at the district’s three comprehensive high schools.

Mead, which has about 10,800 students, had even higher metrics that surpassed anything seen before: 547 cases in the previous 10 days. Of those, 41 were among staff.

The biggest numbers came at Mead High School, where 151 students and 14 staff have tested positive.

The county’s fourth-largest district, Cheney, had 125 cases. Fifty of those were at Cheney High School.

After a four-week break, the Riverside School District updated its dashboard on Wednesday; it showed 35 cases among students and staff in the previous 14 days.

In Coeur d’Alene Schools, higher case counts are reflecting those seen across Kootenai County. The district reported 158 new cases through Wednesday, up from 73 for all of last week.