BY KARISSA MILLER
Iredell-Statesville Schools officials said more than 20,000 students attended classes in district schools on Monday, the first day of the 2021-2022 for most district schools.
But hundreds of students were also no-shows.
“We have about 600 students on our roll that didn’t show up, but anticipate about 400 showing up by the end of the week,” Superintendent Jeff James said.
Among the no-shows are about 300 students at South Iredell, West West Iredell and North Iredell high schools. Calling that an odd occurrence, James said that the school will make phone calls to students’ parents in an effort to get those students in school.
Meanwhile, Lake Norman High School has surpassed its projected enrollment by 77 students.
About 170 students are enrolled in the district’s virtual learning academy. James said the district capped enrollment due to a lack of teachers.
I-SS leadership team visits schools
On the first day of school, James visited several schools, including Scotts Elementary and West Iredell High. Other members of the I-SS leadership team dropped in at other schools throughout the district.
The superintendent said the district’s facilities were in good shape.
“We did a lot of work over summer with pressure washing and landscaping. It was good to see that a lot our schools look aesthetically pleasing,” James said. “I think it makes an impression on our kids and they feel good going into a clean building.”
James’ day began with with a tour of Scotts Elementary, led by Principal Susan Fail. While visiting classrooms, James asked students if they were glad to be back in school.
“It was a resounding yes,” he said. “Kids are ready to be back and happy to be back.”
During another school visit, James was pleasantly surprised when he ran into a former student who is now a teacher.
I-SS, like many other school systems, is beginning the new year with a teacher shortage, which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re definitely seeing what the business market is seeing,” he said. “We just can’t get people to come in to work.”
I-SS is short about 30 to 35 teachers, James said.
Some schools are starting their year with substitutes to fill teacher vacancies until a teacher is hired. Another option is emergency permitted teaching positions which can be issued.
Statewide the shortages are about 600 for elementary, 400 for middle and around 450 for high school teachers. This is with about only 62-percent of districts reporting so far, he said.
Other positions that districts statewide are finding hard to fill are classified positions, which include jobs like bus drivers and teacher assistants.
Closing student learning gaps
In previous meetings, the I-SS school board asked James for advice on addressing achievement gaps that were created because of the pandemic.
James has always emphasized the importance of building relationships, but did recommend additional resources for the classroom.
“Statewide everyone has seen what we have with Covid, which is a significant impact on learning,” James said. “It won’t be closed in one year. It will take a while. We had many successful learning camps (this summer). We want our teachers to carry that over into the classroom with project-based learning.”
This year, the board approved adding 25 part-time teacher assistants for the district’s high-need elementary schools.
For the first time, the district’s budget also included funding for at least one dedicated school resource officer at every I-SS school.
Face masks are optional
This summer, the school board voted to make face masks a parent’s choice, or optional for students and teachers this year. However, the policy allows the superintendent authority to make masks mandatory when necessary.
The board had to contend with strong resistance to masks from some parents, community members and activist groups. Some of them argued that the mask rule was an intrusion on parents’ authority to make decisions about their child’s health.
James told the board that it was important for them to hear from both sides. However, the board has received very little comment during meetings from those who support wearing face masks.
James said he witnessed about 50 to 80 percent of students wearing face masks on the first day.
At N.B. Mills Elementary School, which had an earlier start date this year, 43 students have already had to quarantine because of close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19..
The school also experienced a drop in student attendance with around 35 percent of students at home.
As a result, James made masks mandatory for that school in order to break the quarantine cycle.
School officials want to remind parents to not send their children to school if they are sick or exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms. Parents can have their child tested for COVID-19 at school. The tests are convenient and free.
“Parents, continue to pray for us and support us that we make the right decisions. We (the board and district leadership team) will continue to look at the data and do everything we can to make the school year successful,” James said.