(The Center Square) – Students in Minneapolis Public Schools and Rochester Public Schools districts returned to in-person learning Monday, after learning virtually for two weeks. The districts said they made the decision to pivot to virtual learning because of staffing shortages.
“The current surge in COVID-19 challenges the ability to operate schools and provide transportation at full capacity, but MPS remains committed to providing consistent learning for students,” a Jan. 12 Minneapolis Public Schools letter to parents said.
The letter was issued two days before online learning began.
MPS Media Relations Coordinator Crystina Lugo-Beach told The Center Square that on Jan. 11 and Jan. 12, 400 licensed teachers were absent from school, and they were only able to fill 45% of those absences due to low rates of available substitute teachers.
“Typical absence rates at this time of year are nearer to 200 a day,” she said. “Our systems are not set up to give an overall number of absences at all grade levels at any given moment. But many other staff were absent at similar rates at the schools – paraprofessionals, cooks, facilities staff, etc.”
She said that since classes resumed Jan. 3 following winter break, the top three reasons for absences were personal illness, personal leave with pay and family illness.
“The vast majority of school staff who are unavailable are out because they are ill and unable to perform and/or they are isolating or quarantining as necessary, not because they are ever hospitalized,” Minnesota Department of Health Information Officer Doug Schultz told The Center Square.
From Aug 2020 through about October 2021, there were 10,773 total pre-K through grade 12 school staff cases, which peaked in November 2020 and September 2021, the department reported.
The department had been tracking hospitalizations of school staff in 2021, combining cross-referencing case data with data from schools, until around Nov. 1, Schultz said.
The district encouraged keeping students home for online learning. Families that couldn’t keep students at home were able to send their children to school to be supervised by available school staff, as Minnesota Department of Education guidance stipulates. MPS enrollment is about 29,000 students.
Lugo-Beach said teachers have been trained to teach in an online setting. Screen breaks and time for stretch breaks are built into each lesson and teachers have been encouraged to use online tools in their instruction. Students have continued access to mental health support and school-based clinics, she said.
Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel said that more than half of the district’s schools are experiencing “very significant” staffing shortages, KTTC reported.
The district announced Jan. 18 that schools can move to distance learning if they approach, meet or exceed certain criteria and it predicts the trend will likely continue. Measures that would prompt review of operations and likely two-week closure/distance learning are 15% of students and staff in the classroom with symptoms or positive confirmation of COVID-19; 50% of staff and students in a grade level are positive, symptomatic or quarantined; or, per building.
Saint Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard told district staff Jan. 13 that while the district’s leadership team created a proposal to temporarily shift to online learning for two weeks beginning Jan. 18, they did not have agreement to implement the plan. The schools therefore stayed open for in-person learning.
The district announced Jan. 18 schools with at least 25% of classroom teachers absent will notify families and switch to temporary virtual learning if they project the absence rate will continue for more than three days. The district said immediate shifts to virtual learning may still be possible. District enrollment in 2020 was about 36,000 students.
SPPS students walked out of classes Jan. 18 to protest the district’s handling of COVID-19’s omicron variant. They made nine demands, which they outlined in a letter that KARE 11 News posted.