Area school districts are facing hardships this year, but it isn’t directly for the reason many may think.

While COVID-19 continues to be present in the community and schools, district officials say staffing shortages are the major issue.

If the schools would ever have to close or go into distance learning, Crosby-Ironton Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland said in his district it would be for a lack of bus drivers to transport students to school, cooks to serve food or custodians to clean.

“We need support staff,” Skjeveland said during a phone interview Thursday, Oct. 7. “If you are a parent or someone out there — maybe you can only work once or twice a week or only one or two hours — call us immediately. We have a job for you.”

The custodial staff is down by about 50% at Crosby-Ironton.

“We are in a crisis mode with staffing in our school district, and we need to address it, and we need to address it today,” Skjeveland said, noting the district is willing to train those interested in driving bus, cleaning or doing any of the jobs that need to be filled.

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Crosby-Ironton’s plight is not unique.

The Brainerd School Board recently approved wage increases for many substitute staffers to entice more applicants. The district’s transportation department also sent a letter out Tuesday detailing the drastic shortage of bus drivers, noting leaders are working tirelessly to mitigate the unprecedented situation.

Pillager schools are short on substitutes for everything — kitchen help, bus drivers, custodians and assistants.

“Everybody is kind of doing their part. Our teachers are covering for each other,” Pillager Superintendent Mike Malmberg said Friday. “Our custodians are picking up extra. Some of my maintenance people are helping out driving routes. I’ve jumped in and helped serve food. Everybody’s pitching in, and that’s kind of what it’s going to take, I think.”

Pequot Lakes Interim Superintendent Kurt Stumpf reported an increased number of positions not being filled when teachers are absent.

From 2018-20, the number of teacher absences that went unfilled was about 5%, he said. This September, that number rose to 14% and had climbed to about 32% for the first part of October. Teachers are being pulled from prep time and principals from administrative duties, creating a strain on staffers across the district. Stumpf said the district is working on a plan to get more substitutes and will present that to the board when it is complete.

Despite a shortage of support staffers, Stumpf takes pride in knowing the district has still been able to provide bus service every day and transport students to every activity, and he thanks the dedication of bus drivers.

Pine River-Backus Superintendent Jonathan Clark said his district is right on the line where any more absences could be troublesome, but so far he has been able to move some bus routes and other staff around to make sure everything is covered. A shortage of bus drivers and paraprofessionals, he said, is normal in any school year.

While Little Falls Superintendent Stephen Jones said the bus companies the district works with are fully staffed, most days there are shortages in support and substitute roles.

“I don’t think there’s a district in the state that hasn’t seen some sub shortage in some area,” Jones said.

COVID-19 climate in schools

As staff shortages plague schools, COVID-19 has not gone away.

Several area districts have buildings on the Minnesota Department of Health’s list with five or more cases of COVID-19, including Pillager, Pine River-Backus, Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and Little Falls.

Clark said as of Friday there were about seven cases districtwide in Pine River-Backus, as the department of health’s data takes previous weeks into account.

“We’re not as high as we have been. It always changes from week to week a little bit, as some kids and staff roll off from quarantine,” Clark said. “... Right now it’s manageable — no big concerns, and we haven’t been able to detect any patterns or groupings.”

Malmberg reported about 12 cases districtwide in Pillager as of Friday, while Crosby-Ironton reported eight.

Jones said the numbers in Little Falls are manageable, and most cases are coming from people in the same families.

“We’re doing the best that we can, understanding the situation that we’re in. Our goal is to have the most amount of kids in school on the most amount of days, and that’s how we’ve been operating through the first 23 days of school, and hopefully that’s how we’ll continue,” Jones said Thursday. “... “Certainly we’d like to be at zero cases, but we’re comfortable with where we’re at with the fact that our kids are back in person.”

Pequot Lakes relaxed the high school mask mandate put in place in mid-September, now only requiring staff members districtwide to wear them. That requirement will be further looked at Oct. 13.

The district reported 22 COVID-19 cases in the high school the week of Sept. 19-25, and that number dropped to six cases Sept. 26-Oct. 2.

Stumpf said the district has KN95 masks available for students and staff who want them, and at-home COVID-19 tests are available as well.

Brainerd is the only school district in the immediate area with a districtwide mask mandate in effect. At the last board meeting, school board members said they wanted to have a concrete benchmark from administration as to what would have to happen to be able to relax that mandate. The board’s next meeting is Monday.

No districts have reported a large number of student or staff quarantines, saying quarantine numbers have been better this year so far than last year.



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