Central Florida school leaders discuss changes amid COVID-19 surge

High number of absences led Orange County to require masks for adults, excuse absences

ORLANDO, Fla. – Orange County Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins said around 700 instructional staff members, about 5%, called in sick on Tuesday for the first day back after the holiday break.

Only 95 out of 650 bus drivers came to work on Tuesday.

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The absentees are the reason Jenkins and Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs decided on Monday to require masks for all adults in Orange County schools and excuse absences for students who make up their work.

“I want to be very clear, we do not encourage parents to keep their children home,” Jenkins said. “I want to mention that critical to our decision in our deliberation yesterday was a severe increase in sick call-ins from our school staff.”

Jacobs said the district is doing everything it can to stay open.

“What can we do to reduce the risk of having to close the schools because we have so many absentees, either from teachers who get this variant, bus drivers who can’t drive them to school, we need our food and nutrition services, we need everybody who can be at work, at work,” Jacobs said.

In Osceola County, 314 teachers called in sick yesterday, almost 8% of the entire teaching staff and almost double the number from the same day a year ago. An Osceola County schools spokesperson said there is a shortage of teaching staff.

Seminole County schools announced Tuesday it will pay substitutes an extra $30 per day for the rest of the month.

And several districts, Orange, Osceola, Marion and Seminole, all said administrators are on standby to teach or do whatever else they need to do.

“We need to make sure that we keep our schools open to the best of our abilities,” Jacobs said. “It’s always a possibility with this omicron variant that we may reach a point where we can’t do that throughout the duration. I hope we can and we’re doing everything in our power to make that happen.”

Tallahassee did not approve an alternative option, like online instruction, to replace brick and mortar schools this year so schools cannot close. But that’s different than cannot stay open, according to Jacobs.

Jacobs said closure is not an intentional consideration.

“But if we’re not able to control the spread enough to where we have enough teachers and enough bus drivers to run our schools, that’s the threat, that’s the greatest fear we have and that’s why we’re requiring the masks,” Jacobs said.

All children in Orange County have devices already so the district could pivot to online instruction easily, according to Jacobs.

Jacobs prefers parents to send their children to school, but Orange County is giving parents the choice.

“We know our kids do better in school, emotionally they do better in school, academically they do better in school, but we also know that some of our children to have special needs and parents have concerns about their health or the health of family members,” Jacobs said. “So if we can allow our children to stay home for a couple of weeks, they have to keep up with their school assignments, we can’t let them fall behind, but if parents are committed to making sure they get their assignments and do their assignments and turn them in, we’re going to count those as excused absences.”

Orange County is the only district in Central Florida with a mask mandate.

Marion County will discuss on Thursday bringing back a mask mandate with an opt-out option.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.