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Winfield Elementary closed Thursday due to staff shortage caused by symptoms following vaccine clinic

Winfield Elementary School was closed Thursday due to a lack of staff members when many experienced symptoms that kept them from working the day after being vaccinated against COVID-19.

It is the first time Carroll County Public Schools has had to close one of its facilities due to staffing issues, said Chief of Schools Cindy McCabe. The plan is for Winfield to be open on Friday, she said.

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McCabe told the Times that the school system had appropriate coverage for Thursday until late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning, when 27 Winfield Elementary staff members reported they were experiencing symptoms from the second vaccine dose they received Wednesday at a school-run clinic that were too severe to allow them to work in person or, for some, even to work from home.

The school’s website stated early Thursday morning: “Due to staffing shortages that impact classroom coverage, Winfield Elementary School will be closed today, Thursday, March 18. Parents are encouraged to check Google Classroom for any work available to students.”

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McCabe said “there are staff members and teachers at Winfield today who are not sick, who can provide some instruction,” noting that all students should have been able to at least have “some sort of asynchronous work” to do on Thursday.

McCabe said she understands it’s a huge inconvenience for parents and hopes it’s “a smaller price to pay” for vaccinating employees.

Those who experienced symptoms from the vaccine are not charged sick leave since they “want our employees to be vaccinated,” Jon O’Neal, chief operating officer, said through a spokesperson Thursday.

Despite having to close Winfield Elementary on Thursday, CCPS officials said staffing has improved over the past few months.

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Having enough teachers and instructional assistants in classrooms was a concern for CCPS when students started hybrid learning in October and resumed hybrid in January. Staffing was mentioned again at a recent meeting after the Carroll County Board of Education voted to return students to the classroom at least four days a week. However, McCabe said thanks to the vaccine, the situation is improving.

“We are in a much better staffing situation because so many of our staff had their second vaccination and are coming back to work in person,” she said. “Every day we’re closer to being in a more normal situation for staffing.”

Receiving a vaccine has not been easy for all staff. Celeste Jordan, a teacher at Winters Mill, compared finding an appointment to the movie and book “The Hunger Games” during the last school board meeting. However, the health department is close to vaccinating every CCPS staff member who wants one.

Health Officer Ed Singer told the Board of County Commissioners at Thursday’s meeting that an additional 500 CCPS staff were vaccinated on Wednesday at the clinic, and another clinic is scheduled for next week, with spots still available, that should finish vaccinating everyone in the system who wanted one. Higher education employees have been vaccinated as well.

“There should be no reason that anyone in the public school system who wants to be vaccinated, can’t be vaccinated,” he said after telling staff to reach out to him or school administration if they’re struggling to get an appointment.

O’Neal said fewer staff members are in quarantine, more assistants have been hired and less central office staff have been deployed to cover classrooms.

He said since December, between 200 and 250 employees have returned to in-person instruction and the system hired between 15 and 20 assistants in the last couple of weeks, largely through a temp agency the board approved last month. Central office staff have been filling in for teachers or assistants who were not available for in-person instruction. But O’Neal said fewer are having to do that.

“So the staffing picture is looking pretty good at the moment,” he said Wednesday, later adding that he didn’t want to jinx it.

Beginning this week, elementary school students had the option of in-person learning at least four days a week. Although there were “a couple hiccups” the staffing looked better than it did in January, O’Neal said. The buses are operating well, air purifiers have started being distributed and they believe they have an “adequate supply” of personal protective equipment.

Steve Wernick, director of elementary schools, said Wednesday they had two “very smooth days” as students returned. “Other than our arrival and dismissal time took a little longer than usual,” he added.

He said the school day was similar to pre-COVID times and like a start of the new school year. For some, it was their first time in the building since last school year, he said, so they had to ensure everyone felt comfortable.

Although more students were in the buildings, it is still a hybrid setting and virtual students continue to receive instruction from in-person teachers.

“I know students and staff are very excited to be back and can feel the excitement in the air,” he said.

Middle school and high school students have the option of returning to buildings four days per week beginning Monday.

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