Staffing shortages are at the root of many decisions by area school officials to move all or part of their districts into distance learning.
As COVID-19 cases surge throughout the state and in the lakes area, the number of teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers and other school personnel becoming ill or needing to quarantine due to exposure is too high for many schools to continue in-person instruction.
More than a dozen schools in the seven-county region of Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Mille Lacs, Todd and Wadena announced changes to their learning models within the past week, several citing staffing shortages as one of the reasons.
Seventh through 12th graders at Aitkin High School moved from in-person classes to remote learning Monday, Nov. 9, and will continue through Nov. 25, after which students will break for Thanksgiving. Administrators will evaluate local data and staffing levels at that point to determine how to move forward.
Elementary students continue to attend classes in person, as administrators believe remote learning is most challenging for younger learners. Early childhood classes at the Aitkin Children’s Center, however, also entered remote learning Nov. 9 after a confirmed COVID-19 case impacted too many staff members to continue in person. In-person classes are due to resume Nov. 23.
In a letter dated Nov. 5, Superintendent Dan Stifter cited staffing concerns, rising COVID-19 cases in the county and school district and challenges with contact tracing as drivers for high school the shift.
After middle and high school students in Brainerd and Baxter moved to distance learning Nov. 5, younger students will follow suit beginning Nov. 18. Elementary students started the year attending classes in person every day but with shortened school days and buildings at no more than 50% capacity.
Superintendent Laine Larson announced the change Tuesday, Nov. 10, followed by another letter Wednesday hashing out details. She attributed the shift to the analysis of numerous COVID-19-related data sources and the inability to maintain acceptable staffing levels. Last month, district officials reported such severe staffing shortages that mechanics, office staff, custodians, the transportation director and even Reichert Bus Service owners were pitching in to drive buses.
Early childhood students up through fourth graders will continue attending classes in person this week so they can meet with their teachers and bring home necessary supplies. Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 16-17, will be teacher planning days, with no elementary students attending classes in person or virtually.
Warrior athletes are expected to finish their fall seasons as scheduled, with no confirmed COVID-19 cases in varsity athletes or coaches. Outdoor winter activities will begin as planned, along with varsity-level indoor activities.
Emergency child care will be offered for children of Tier 1 workers, according to the Minnesota Safe Learning Plan, including those in health care, public health, law enforcement, public safety, first response, the judicial system, National Guard, education and child care. For those who don’t qualify, Fun ‘N’ Friends will offer an all-day care option for a limited number of students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Free seven-day meal kits will be available for all students to pick up on Wednesdays.
Larson said the goal is to return to in-person learning as soon as COVID-19 data points significantly improve and encourage community members to help by following state and federal health guidelines.
“This has been an extremely difficult time for everyone and the partnership and collaborative work completed by all has been none-other than miraculous,” Larson wrote Wednesday. “During this time, please take care of yourself and your family. Together, we will get through this challenge as a community partnership focused on high quality, best practice teaching and instruction.”
The early childhood program at Little Falls Community School will transition to distance learning immediately, the district announced Wednesday, Nov. 11. COVID-19 infections occurred during the preschool Kids Korner program at the Early Childhood Center between Oct. 26-Nov. 5 when the facility provided emergency child care during a period of distance learning. Classes are set to resume in person Nov. 18.
All Little Falls students came back from two weeks of distance learning Nov. 10, after the Minnesota Department of Education clarified the section of the Safe Learning Plan regarding county infection rates. State health department officials said county rates are just one of several data points schools should monitor.
Long Prairie-Grey Eagle
Late last week, Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Elementary School in Todd County joined the Minnesota Department of Health’s list of schools with five or more COVID-19 cases. Subsequently, the district announced Tuesday a shift to distance learning for all students beginning Thursday, Nov. 19, through the month of December. Nov. 16-18 will be transition days. On Jan. 4, students are expected to return from winter break in a hybrid model for two weeks, with in-person learning starting again Jan. 19 for the second semester.
Kindergarten through sixth grade students in Pequot Lakes will follow their older peers with a move to distance learning beginning Nov. 16.
Superintendent Chris Lindholm cited staffing concerns and evidence of in-school COVID-19 transmission as reasons for the shift. Pequot Lakes High School also recently joined the Minnesota Health Department list of schools with at least five cases.
“We’ve simply reached the point at which the safety of students and staff is being unacceptably compromised,” Lindholm wrote in a letter to families Wednesday. “We want nothing more than to be with our students every day in-person; however, that is not sustainable at this time.”
Lindholm believes staff members are better prepared for distance learning than they were last March.
Staffing challenges in Pierz will move fifth through 12th grade students into distance learning Nov. 16. Hybrid classes for these students will continue through Thursday, Nov. 12, with no classes Friday.
Distance learning will continue through Thanksgiving break, with the goal of moving back to at least partially in-person classes for some students if possible.
Elementary students will remain in person, which school leaders hope can continue as long as possible.
Pillager secondary students will move to distance learning Nov. 16 as well.
“Over this past weekend, the number of staff absent due to illness or needing to quarantine jumped significantly and we simply cannot sustain our regular operations in the current format in the secondary school,” Superintendent Mike Malmberg wrote in a letter to families Nov. 9.
There will be no instruction for middle and high school students Nov. 13 to allow teachers to prepare for the transition.
Staples-Motley High School students will move to distance learning Nov. 17, while seventh and eighth graders transition to a reduced hybrid model with three days of distance learning each week.
The goal is to welcome students back to their regular hybrid schedules Nov. 30 after Thanksgiving break.
The district has not seen an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in school buildings but has seen an increase in staff and students having to quarantine.
“To all our families, we ask that you take this two weeks to minimize your exposure to COVID-19 so we can meet our goals for returning to school,” Superintendent Shane Tappe wrote in a letter to families Tuesday.
Seventh through 12th graders as Wadena-Deer Creek will begin distance learning Nov. 16 and continue through at least Nov. 30, at which time school officials will re-evaluate the situation.
The decision was based on increased COVID-19 cases in students in those grades, staffing difficulties and high rates of community spread in the area.
“I thank you for your understanding and patience, and please know that we are monitoring the situation on a daily basis and we are doing our best to balance the educational needs of our students with the health concerns of our students and staff,” Superintendent Lee Westrum wrote in a letter to families Nov. 10.
Around the region
Other schools around the seven-county region announcing changes to learning models this week include Milaca, Mille Lacs County; Upsala, Morrison County; Browerville, Todd County; and Verndale, Sebeka and Menahga, Wadena County.