BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Despite the continuing rise in COVID cases throughout Central Alabama, many school districts made the decision to bring students back to the classroom this upcoming week for in-person learning.

“A disturbing trend with the COVID variant, we know that our testing percentage is up higher than they have ever been and were on alter for server spread in our area,” said Tracee Binion, UniServ Director with the AEA.

The uptick in COVID cases brings the concern for how school districts will handle the new variant as they battle staffing shortages.

“A substitute problem where we can’t get enough people to drive buses, we can’t get enough substitutes in the classroom even lunchroom workers who are out. Well, you have to have enough adults in the building for students to be able to come in,” said Binion.

Alabama’s unemployment rate for November was 3.1%, causing districts to face a limited labor market.

“The real key for us with Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Vestavia Hills and to other school districts we partner with is constantly recruiting, constantly posting things, trying to get very creative, and really trying to get the community involved,” said Chris Zuber, with Kelly Services a specialty talent company.

To help fill in those vacant positions, districts are offering competitive wages and extra incentives to attract workers.

“Sign-on bonuses, referral bonuses, we certainly encourage those that are teaching and enjoying and like working with us to tell their friends and encourage them,” said Zuber.

Another hurdle districts face is teachers heading into retirement. Recruitment efforts are also being made at the high school and college level to get more people interested in pursuing a degree in education to help fill in the gap long term.