As omicron surges, Osseo superintendent faces school staff absences of up to 25 percent

A woman and teenager look at a laptop as they sit in a classroom.
Principal Crystal Ballard answers interview question as she sits in on a distance learning class with student Leo Carlson on Sept. 30, 2020, at Hopkins High School.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

Freezing temperatures, staff shortages and skyrocketing COVID-19 case numbers have pushed school leaders to move to distance learning in a number of Minnesota districts, including Roseville, Richfield, Robbinsdale, Worthington, Prior Lake-Savage, St. Anthony-New Brighton, Fridley and Farmington.

Osseo Area Schools are also on that list. Cory McIntyre, the district’s superintendent, joined host Cathy Wurzer with more on the situation.

We also heard the voices of teachers and parents from across the state, as they shared how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted school life for them.

The following is a transcript of the interview with McIntyre, lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation with the audio player above.

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The notice you sent to families [said] schools won't go back to in-person learning until about Jan. 24 because of so many student and staff illnesses. Give us a picture what's going on in Osseo schools.

First, we so appreciate our students, our families and our staff. [They] are doing everything they can right now to remain flexible. I know it's super challenging. None of us were hoping to be in this spot. We struggled leading into winter break, but we didn't know what we'd be experiencing post-winter break as we started the new year with the new [omicron] variant.

This is a purely an operational move for us. We feel very strongly our mitigation efforts are solidly in place. We're doing everything we can with testing and promoting [the] vaccine and all the other mitigation efforts in our buildings. But right away on Monday we saw very large volumes of illness in our system with our staff. We limped through the week, pushing through day by day, hoping that we would see some improvement, monitoring things on almost an hourly basis. We were hoping by Monday we would see an upturn for the better.

But Monday came around, and we were still very seriously understaffed. And that really brings into concern for us meeting the safety needs, the health needs, the basic supervision to provide that standard of care we have to maintain. We were starting to push 25 percent [staff] absences in some of our buildings. After consulting with our state leaders in public health, [we] decided we needed to take a two-week reset [to] try to get our staff as healthy as possible and able to provide in-person learning.

None of us love the online learning option. We're going to do the best we can to provide learning during that time. But it really comes down to the health and safety of our students. We need to have a baseline number of staff to be able to operate.

It is a lot — 25 percent staff absence.

We have 30 sites, so our approach was to go school by school. But by the end of last week, we had over 20 of those 30 sites [with] over 15 percent [of staff absent.] I think we had one building that was not in double-digit absences. So it hit us across the district.

And you weren't able to backfill with subs because they're also sick?

Pre-COVID to now, we lost half our sub pool. And that's a pretty common story across the metro — maybe across the state. We just don't have the same number of subs. We used to have nearly 200 substitutes. We have under 100 substitutes available to us now. And we had nearly 600 staff across our system out last Friday, almost 250 teachers. So we had well over 60, nearly 70 unfilled classrooms on Friday and again on Monday. We had well over 500 staff out ill on Monday as well. It was just unsustainable. We don't have enough people to meet that kind of demand for vacancies.

You thanked families at the beginning of our conversation, but are you getting any pushback [from them]?

Yeah, we always do. Any decision like this is so hard. What we appreciate about our district is there's a wide variety of perspectives.

I think the majority understand that there is a baseline level of just purely operating the schools — getting our scholars to and from school, being able to feed them, making sure learning is happening — and that was really being challenged. We had big numbers of absences with bus drivers, our food service, our custodians. We need to be able to provide that baseline standard of care, and that was really in jeopardy.

We anticipate that [will change] by [Jan. 24]. But boy, it seems like every day we get something new, a new piece of information that's a game-changer. So we're just going to continue to evaluate and communicate with our families on where we go next.

Many teachers I've talked to say that when they go to online learning, it's been really hard to find their students. Half, maybe, show up online, and half are not there. Are you concerned about students’ academic progress?

Absolutely. We have been throughout the whole pandemic. And that's been the tension: How do you balance the health needs of our staff and our students with the learning needs?

We saw last year — moving in and out of learning models really was disruptive to learning — and not just learning, but the social, emotional and mental health needs of our students and our staff and their families, too.

We just hit that tipping point. And I guess you're seeing it throughout the metro right now, with a number of districts having to make some short-term changes to remote learning.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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