This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Omaha Public Schools teachers say they’re exhausted, fearful and lacking support from the district amid ongoing staffing shortages and rising coronavirus case counts. Six OPS staff members spoke to the Board of Education at Thursday night’s meeting on Jan. 20, saying teachers are covering classes or taking additional students while their colleagues, out sick with COVID-19, use up sick days with no pandemic pay.
“We are all running on empty,” said Michelle Settlemyer, a science teacher at Omaha Northwest High Magnet School and member of the Omaha Education Association Board of Directors.
The teacher shortage has been grossly underestimated, Settlemeyer said, and has only gotten worse in this stage of the pandemic. Teachers are covering for sick colleagues during time they’d typically use to plan their own classes, she said.
“On average your teachers are spending an additional 20 hours a week outside of duty hours because of the plan time lost due to shortages of staff,” Settlemeyer said.
Poor building cleanliness, lack of security and no planning time continues to endanger the health and safety of OPS staff and students, Settlemeyer said.
“We expect more from you than the perpetual scolding and toxic positivity,” Settlemeyer said to the Board.
Robert Miller, the president of the Omaha Education Association, said teachers are fearful that COVID-19 safety measures aren’t being followed, and the lack of time for class planning is adding anxiety to teachers who already feel overwhelmed trying to do what’s best for their students. Many teachers who are out sick with COVID have depleted their sick days, Miller said.
“Staff are feeling punished because they’re being exposed at the place of employment, and then the pay is being reduced because they have no days to use,” he said.
He called on the district to act on the staffing crisis by placing a moratorium on grade level meetings, staff meetings and new initiatives as well as making adjustments to pay teachers who are on COVID leave.
OPS teacher and OEA representative Molly Davies said the district’s additional instructional hours for teachers only adds more work and responsibilities for teachers in a time when they instead need to make up for lost planning time.
“Our working conditions are the learning conditions of our students,” she said.
Davies said administrators of the Millard Public School District have shut down certain professional development days to allow teachers to recoup the plan time lost while covering for other teachers.
OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan addressed the staffing shortage in her remarks at the beginning of the meeting. She first thanked teachers for continuing to show up during this time.
“We see staffing challenges in every school district and every profession,” Logan said. “It’s decades in the making and intensified by the pandemic.”
The district is working on efforts to sustain the staff pipeline, she said. One of those solutions has been the creation of the concierge team, a paid position of team members who assist OPS staff to support students during lunch time, classes, busing and more.
Since launching the concierge team, OPS has hired and placed 50 new members in schools as aides, Logan said. Additionally, staff from the Teacher Administration Center (TAC) Building assist in schools, and certified TAC staff are regularly subbing in classes.
Another new initiative provides a stipend for student teachers, removing another obstacle for adults who wish to serve in OPS schools, Logan said.
Omaha Public School District students experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 can get tested at two locations. Partnering with Children’s Hospital, the district provides testing at Mills Building, 4301 N 30th St., and Forest Station Elementary, 1010 Childs Rd W. in Bellevue. Sites are open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. or as long as tests are available that day.
The Board also approved the revised rules and regulations for the Omaha School Employees Retirement System, or OSERS, which manages the retirement benefits for all full-time school employees.
Scott Roberts, chief financial officer of the OPS district, presented to the board the recent experience study that reviewed and recommended changes to the OSERS plan. The study occurs every four years and was completed by the Cavanaugh MacDonald consulting services.
The board approved the actuarial assumptions proposed in the OSERS plan.
Roberts also gave an update on two potential changes the district is considering for spending Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds since its original plan was approved by the OPS Board of Education on Sept. 9. First, the COVID testing program partnership with Children’s Hospital, and secondly, the new teacher pipeline program, a partnership with UNO for teacher scholars.
The district will discuss details on these programs as well as funding needs, and plan to seek approval at a future Board meeting.