Staffing shortages and dwindling morale are concerns at Brainerd Public Schools as the coronavirus pandemic continues and Crow Wing County case numbers rise.

Administrators updated school board members Monday, Oct. 26, on the COVID-19 situation in the district, specifically noting a shortage of transportation drivers and concerns of low morale from some teachers and staff members.

Superintendent Laine Larson said there are six data points administrators look at when making decisions about learning models: County case count, new positive cases in the district, number of staff and students in quarantine, staffing concerns, administrative concerns, transportation concerns.

Crow Wing County surpassed 1,000 cases as of Sunday, Oct. 25 and has recorded 22 deaths from COVID-19. Public health officials estimate the county’s 14-day per 10,000 case rate to be around 40.1 on Thursday, Oct. 29, for the period of Oct. 4-17. The following week is expected to see a rate of 50 for Oct. 11-24.

The 14-day per 10,000 case rate is a mechanism used by the state to suggest learning models for schools. At a county rate of more than 50, the state’s Safe Learning Plan recommends schools to have all students in distance learning. The district does not have any plans to change learning models right now, but a shift could be in the future.

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“We never really anticipated we’d be hitting that 50 mark. We said that would take something kind of astronomical to be happening with our county, and that’s unfortunately what we’re seeing in the community spread,” Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn said.

Since Friday, Oct. 23, the district has seen five new COVID-19 cases in students, one in a staff member and one in an independent contractor, which could be a mental health professional, a transportation driver or any other contracted employee.

There were 104 students quarantined as of Friday, with 15 testing positive. Twenty-two more students were quarantined Monday. There were 40 staff members quarantined as of Friday, with three positive cases. Twenty staff members came out of quarantine Monday, but 20 more went into quarantine.

Staff in every building and department has been impacted, Hahn said, especially the transportation department. The district is 14 drivers short right now, after starting 11 short at the beginning of the year. Routes were consolidated and shortened to account for that shortage, but staffing is still an issue. Mechanics, office staff, custodians, the transportation director and even Reichert Bus owners are driving buses to pick up the slack.

Hahn said the district learned there are many families with students who are not riding the bus but still hang on to bus passes in case of inclement weather. Those families are urged to let the district know if they aren’t using the pass — at the least for the next month — to allow for some rerouting. The district is also exploring the possibility of using school vans to transport students, if needed.

“Transportation is very much being strained to meet the unique needs that we’re facing right now,” Hahn said.

A recent survey asked administrators in each building how they would rate the pulse or temperature of their facilities or departments. A majority responded, with 63% reporting they were doing OK, meaning staffers have ups and downs, the staff level is OK and the level education is where it’s expected to be. Twenty-two percent said they were hanging on by a thread, with low staff morale, staffing struggles and an inability to provide the desired level of education. The last 15% marked the “other,” category, and no one reported they were doing great. Comments for “other,” included:

  • Staff are glad to be with kids every day, but staffing levels are a concern.

  • Instruction is being compromised through the current process.

  • Staffers are busy covering for those who are out, as there is a shortage of substitutes.

  • Staff members are working harder than ever but feel they are less effective than ever.

“Everyone, I do want to say, has been just doing a phenomenal job with what we have in place for hybrid. The staff has gone above and beyond every single day, and we’re so appreciative of that,” Human Resources Director Angie Bennett said. “People are getting tired. The stress is getting to them, so kind of the morale across the buildings is starting to go down.”

Another survey asked about the most challenging element of hybrid learning. Thirty-nine percent of administrators said it’s an inability to adequately staff buildings and departments, while 29% said it’s the balance of distance and in-person learning. Another 17% said the workload is unmanageable, and 15% said it’s the high stress level over COVID-19 concerns.

A contributing factor to the high workload is the amount of students switching over to distance learning. While the district only allows students to switch from distance learning to the hybrid model at the end of a term, state guidelines say students must be able to choose distance learning at any point during the school year. About 10 students a day are choosing to switch to distance learning, with more than 100 switching in the past two weeks. About 25% of students are now in the distance learning model compared to roughly 17% at the beginning of the year. Because of the constant switch and the need to teach students in both models, Hahn said stress levels seem to be higher among secondary staff members. The elementary schools, on the other hand, have teachers who are specifically dedicated to distance learning cohorts and those who are teaching just in the physical classroom.

Board member Bob Nystrom asked if staff stress levels would decrease in a distance learning model without the worry about contracting COVID-19. While teachers would likely feel they had more control over that aspect, Hahn said there are still other concerns, like workloads, child care and the constant desire for students to be in front of them. In the elementary schools, she said distance learning teachers see about 20% of students not engaging, which is stressful, too.

Bennett noted COVID-19 concerns seem to be the lowest impact on stress levels, according to the surveys.

Board member Charles Black Lance praised teachers for the work they’re doing. With three kids in the district, he said his family has had a great experience with teachers being readily available to provide feedback for students remotely — even on the weekends.

“That speaks to the amount of effort that’s being put in by these instructors,” he said.

Community responsibility

If COVID-19 cases continue rising in the community at the current rate, district administrators do not believe they will be able to sustain the hybrid learning model much longer.

Administrators meet weekly with officials from the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Education, Crow Wing County Public Health and Region Five. Based on conversations with that group, Larson said the district believes it can sustain hybrid learning for at least a little longer but is ultimately tapped out when it comes to staffing. All teachers, substitutes and support staff are in position right now, and there is no one else to call when a staff member has to quarantine, meaning other staffers have to take on larger work loads.

“We keep asking people, ‘Please follow the MDH guidelines. Wear your mask, wash your hands, if you’re sick stay home, stay feet apart, don’t go to large gatherings.’ It’s the only way that we’ll be able to stay in the hybrid model,” Larson said. “And at this time, the data isn’t looking that it’s going in a direction that we’re very happy about.”

Pillager

Farther west in Cass County, Pillager High School appears on MDH’s list of school buildings with five or more confirmed cases during a two-week reporting period.

Pillager Public Schools. Brainerd Dispatch file photo
Pillager Public Schools. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Superintendent Mike Malmberg said Tuesday the district has seen a total of 13 cases since school started, most at the middle and high school levels. Both the varsity and junior varsity volleyball teams were quarantined earlier this year due to a positive case and missed a game or two at the beginning of the season. The first grade was quarantined earlier in September, too, because a staff member came to school with symptoms.

At one point earlier this month, he said 153 students were quarantined, primarily as a result of three infected students on two buses at different times. Those students have since returned to school, but the large number in quarantine drove the district to switch from in-person to a hybrid learning model for fifth through 12th grade students last week. One group of students will attend in-person classes Monday and Tuesday, while the other group will attend Thursday and Friday. This plan, Malmberg said, should reduce the amount of students who need to be quarantined if there is a positive case, as there are fewer students on the buses and in the classrooms, allowing for increased social distancing measures.

“The main purpose for our shift was, it’s better to have kids in school at least two days a week rather than 150 kids out for 14 days,” he said. “So the goal is obviously to keep more kids here without having to quarantine them.”

So far teachers and principals have been impressed with the number of kids logging onto their classes regularly during the hybrid learning, though there are some struggles with not everyone participating.

As of Tuesday, Malmberg said the district was not contact tracing any cases, though there may be instances of students or staff at home of their own volition because a family member has symptoms.

Pine River-Backus

Pine River-Backus Schools announced Tuesday afternoon seventh through 12th grade students would finish off the week — Oct. 28-30 — in a distance learning format, as opposed to their remote learning model.

Pine River-Backus Schools. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Pine River-Backus Schools. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

The change is due to possible COVID-19 exposure to a number of essential personnel, the district announced in a Facebook post.

Though the secondary students already started school in a remote format, it differs from the distance learning of last spring, with students logging into each class via Zoom at the appointed time and essentially taking an online class. The district has offered in-person options for students who need extra help or for whom virtual classes are not learning. And Fridays have been flex days for students to come to the school and meet face-to-face with teachers if they need. The in-person options will not be available during this distance learning time.

Homecoming activities are postponed.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.