Omicron increase adds additional stress to understaffed Minnesota schools
Marco Cavalletti has spent months organizing large orders of KN95 masks – including children’s masks – for his family and others in Minneapolis who are trying to protect themselves from COVID-19. But this week, amid the wave of omicron variants, he noticed more urgency and anxiety in the messages he received from his fellow parents.
“People are desperate and looking for something tangible that they can do because everything is overwhelming right now,” Cavalletti said.
Schools are also overwhelmed. Within days of the winter break, the rapid spread of omicron has already proven to be disruptive. Many classrooms were half full on Friday as many students were sick or in quarantine. And the districts were scrambling to concoct solutions to cover staff absences which, in some cases, exceeded 25%.
In St. Paul, only about half of the classes that needed replacements were able to get them. Some high schools in Minneapolis had so many teachers and assistants that they moved several unsupervised classrooms to dining rooms or other common spaces, where students worked online.
Other districts, including Robbinsdale and St. Anthony-New Brighton, switched entire schools to e-learning for a few weeks. The Worthington School District on Friday canceled all classes until next Tuesday due to “increased illnesses among students and staff.” Several districts, including St. Paul, have also sent notes to parents warning of significant transportation delays or cancellations due to the shortage of bus drivers.
Still, school leaders in Minnesota say they’re committed to learning in person and are implementing a variety of solutions to meet staffing needs.
“It’s like every aspect of our organization is at its breaking point, and we are all coming together to hold on,” said David Law, Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent.
Staff and replacement shortages were already straining educators and the increase in the number of COVID-19 cases has only exacerbated the problem, according to state education officials. And the problem isn’t limited to public schools: Principals all over Minnesota spend their mornings figuring out how to move teachers and other staff to cover absentees. Many districts, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Anoka-Hennepin, are also pulling staff from central district offices to help fill in the gaps.
“A local store may decide to close earlier when it is understaffed,” Law said. “We know that when we are understaffed, we can’t just turn the lights off, shut down and say, We’ll try again tomorrow. “
Still, a temporary period of distance learning may help some schools survive the worst of the last peak in infections, said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union. It’s not the right decision for all schools, but it can help relieve the pressure, she said.
“All educators want to work directly with students… we want to be able to do it for as long as possible,” said Specht. But, she added, the current conditions are “very difficult and unsustainable”.
Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Teachers Union, gathered lists of teacher absences this week. “It’s more than ever,” she said.
Students also stay home or are sent home in droves – often with home test kits in hand, said Kelly Woods, principal of Bethune Elementary in Minneapolis.
“Every day we have positive cases,” said Woods. She hears from parents who cannot take time off work to stay home with their children, as well as those who are afraid to send their children to school.
The Minneapolis Teachers Union again this week renewed its call for the district to develop a plan to offer school-specific online options for students to continue learning at home. The district’s online school, which requires families to opt out of in-person learning, has a waiting list.
“We have to take distance education for two weeks to ride the wave,” Callahan said. “And when our students come back, they need a solid plan in place to reach those in quarantine.”
The school districts of Minneapolis and St. Paul are in mediation with their teachers’ unions.
Amy Hewett-Olatunde, who teaches English as a Second Language at St. Paul’s Humboldt High School, said it was difficult to continue classes this week when a third of her class was absent. And when these students return to class, it is likely that another piece will be at home.
“Of course we want to teach them in person, but they are dropping like flies,” she said.
Hewett-Olatunde students and their families are confused about the safety of their school and her colleagues feel guilty when they make themselves sick, she said.
“There’s just this general feeling of instability,” she said. “It’s like we’re at a tipping point and everyone is waiting for this implosion.”
Joe Gothard, superintendent of St. Paul’s public schools, said the shift to distance learning presents its own challenges, including providing devices, internet services and meals to students.
“I hate to say we’re either full or full,” he said, “but anything in between [in-person and distance learning] is a strain on a system already at a breaking point, ”he said.
Amy Kujawski, principal of St. Anthony Middle School in St. Anthony, said she spent her winter vacation preparing for more staff to get sick. As of Tuesday, more than 10% of his teachers were at home. This helped spark the decision to move schools in the district to e-learning for the remainder of the month, although students can still enter the buildings to work.
“I can’t stretch my already limited staff enough to do a typical workday, and it’s devastating,” Kujawski said. “Coming back in September was like the brightest rainbow after the worst, darkest storm. And now to be in a place where we ask students to stay at home is really horrible. but we have no choice. “
Despite the high number of student and staff absences at Anoka-Hennepin schools, Law said most students still receive in-person instruction.
“If we can stick to it, we won’t dial [learning loss]”, he said.” We are doing everything we can to keep our children in school. There is no enemy here other than the pandemic. “