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Norfolk School Board talks employee vaccination status, drops in student attendance

The majority of Norfolk Public Schools employees received their COVID-19 vaccinations, but the division hopes to increase that number.

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk Public Schools (NPS), like most school divisions, is trying to catch up after all of the challenges it faced last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While doing that, it's faced with an increase in chronic absenteeism.

Data from the school division shows an increase in absences across several grade levels. Attendance dropped an average of 4% to 5% since the start of the semester, compared to Fall 2020 when most students were learning remotely. Pre-K and First Grade saw a drops in attendance as large as 6%.

Norfolk Federation of Teachers President Thomas Calhoun said it's been difficult for students to keep up with their studies while we remain in the pandemic.

"I'm not shocked, but I would certainly have expected some type of drop," said Calhoun. "Students are a little behind from virtual teaching last year. We're trying to catch up. We're trying to move forward at the same time."

Calhoun said he’s talked to parents who are nervous about sending their children back to the classroom while the threat of COVID-19 still is there. He added that when you combine that with the school division's effort to get all of its employees vaccinated by the January 3 deadline it put in place, there’s a lot of stress on school leaders.

Currently, 13% of NPS employees are not fully vaccinated. Some of those people do have exemptions, while others took the weekly testing option that the division offered.  When you take those groups out of the mix, about 4% employees still need to get vaccinated.

Anyone who ignores the policy to get vaccinated by January 3 or get tested for COVID-19 weekly could face disciplinary action, even termination.

Calhoun said getting vaccinated really is the best way to ensure student safety.

"When I think about it, I would love to see 100%" said Calhoun. "This is what the school board says you would need to do to teach here. Students, kids can't make these decisions...adults do."

Calhoun said  Norfolk Public Schools and school divisions across Hampton Roads are struggling with staffing shortages, which is why NPS can't afford to lose more teachers because of disciplinary action.

"We're now trying to figure out how to catch up, make up for all that time and move forward at the same pace and it's difficult on every single person in the school system," said Calhoun.

In addition to discussing absenteeism and vaccinations Wednesday, the school board reviewed possible candidates to take over the empty board seat left when Christine Smith resigned.