WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWTI) — School districts across the North Country are continuing to face the impacts of nationwide staffing shortages.

This includes bus drivers, classroom teachers, teacher aides, assistants and additional employees. Some local districts have recently been forced to switch to immediate remote learning due to shortages and radically alter bus schedules.

The Watertown City School District is joining the many school districts facing these shortages. But when it comes to busing shortages, Watertown Superintendent Patricia LaBarr said the District has been able to maintain adequate staffing and the transportation department is working to train more drivers for the remainder of the school year.

However, the district has faced issues when classroom teachers are out and shortages among teacher aides, assistants and cafeteria staff. LaBarr said a factor that may be coming into play is rising COVID rates among staff members.

“In the month of September, we had six staff members that tested positive [for COVID-19], and then in October, we had 18. So that also plays a big factor in making sure that we have enough staffing to meet the needs of our students.”

To address these issues, LaBarr said the District is strategizing substitute teacher placement, prioritizing filling classroom vacancies, and then moving onwards from there.

“What we always start with is what has the biggest impact on children,” LaBarr noted. “So we look first to the classrooms. For example, when we take a look at the list and there may be a reading teacher out, but there’s also a classroom teacher put. If there is a substitute in for the reading teacher, unfortunately, that substitute, that was going to be in for reading that day will be moved over to the classroom.”

Watertown is also now providing additional compensation options for already contracted staff to sit in classrooms during free periods. This recently was approved and offered as a memorandum or agreement with the District’s teachers union.

The District also is recently required all employees to submit proof of COVID vaccination. If employees opted-out, they are now required to receive weekly COVID testing. LaBarr said that staffing shortages could increase in the case that COVID vaccines are mandated.

But moving forward, LaBarr said the largest priority is keeping all kids in school throughout the holiday season and avoiding remote learning.

So if we can get through one more season from November through January and into 2022, and be able to keep our kids all in school at the start of 2022. Then I think we’ll end that on a good note,” LaBarr expressed. “Depending on our biggest critical needs areas with our classroom teachers, our nursing staff, our cafeteria staff, those things that we have to have, we have to maintain our bus drivers.”

“So if we can continue to maintain where we’re at today, then we know that we’re going to be in person tomorrow,” LaBarr concluded.