Updated: 2:42 p.m.
Just 10 days after bringing some students back for in-person learning, an outbreak of COVID-19 among transportation workers has forced Bloomington Public Schools to return to distance learning until mid-February.
The changes underscore the unique challenges to protect bus drivers, many of whom are older and at higher risk of severe illness stemming from the virus. District officials say concerns about student and staff health during the COVID-19 pandemic led to this difficult decision.
“We want nothing more than for our students and staff to be in schools learning safely,” Superintendent Les Fujitake said in an email to parents Thursday. “We understand this is yet another disruption for our families in an already demanding year.”
State guidance released last month allowed school districts around the state to resume in-person learning starting Jan. 18.
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Bloomington brought back students up to second grade on Jan. 19, and had plans to bring back third to fifth graders on Monday, said Rick Kaufman, a district spokesperson who is also in charge of emergency management. That will be on pause until Feb. 12.
“There's always a tremendous amount of hope, bringing students back to school,” Kaufman said. “It’s gut wrenching to now have to move to distance learning. But again, this is the up and down of COVID-19 and its impact on our communities.”
District officials have been asked why parents and guardians can’t just drive students to the schools. Kaufman said about three-quarters of their students use district transportation, and federal law requires the district to provide equal access to education for all students. The district is providing some limited child care during these two weeks at three different locations.
Kaufman said at least eight people in the district’s transportation department have tested positive, and more than a dozen employees are under quarantine. None of the transmission to staff appears to have originated with students, he said, but there are signs that there’s been some transmission between staffers.
Since the pandemic started, the district of about 10,000 students has received reports of COVID-19 cases among at least 80 staff and 160 students, although Kaufman said not all people who have tested positive may have alerted the district.
Educators, child care workers and school staff are being prioritized for vaccination in Minnesota. The state kicked its second round of vaccinations for those workers on Thursday with thousands of vaccinations at Roy Wilkins Arena in downtown St. Paul.
“Our prioritization is in fact those 65 and older,” Kaufman said. “Because our drivers and aides are often older, retired individuals that are looking for supplemental income, they are most at risk based on their age. Yes, they've been our priority group.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations say bus drivers should take a number of precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Minnesota’s recently released guidelines require districts to arrange seating that provides drivers with six feet of space, as well as creating as much distance as possible between riders. The state requires face coverings for both drivers and riders, and extra masks in case they’re needed. They also recommend that windows be opened to provide cross ventilation.
In a memo from state education officials to school leaders last week, state education officials said those who contract with schools — including bus drivers — should “be taken into consideration for a district or charter school’s prioritization.”
The Bloomington district is believed to be the first in the Twin Cities metro area to experience an outbreak since returning to in-person learning last week, said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.
Back to the classroom for St. Paul and Minneapolis
Meanwhile, teacher unions in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are raising the alarm about reopening plans they say are inadequate.
Both districts are set to welcome pre-K through second grade students back to buildings in February, starting with St. Paul Public Schools on Monday.
“It’s a charge towards a date rather than thinking through what’s best for students and staff,” said Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators on Friday. “I’ve been in this district for 35 years. I’ve never seen strife with staff and anxiety to the level it is right now.”
The union, which held a vote of no-confidence in their district’s plan, has asked St. Paul school leaders to give every staff member the chance to be vaccinated before returning to in-person learning.
The Minneapolis Federation of educators has also released a resolution of no confidence in their superintendent and board of educators.
“While the Teacher and Educational Support Professionals (ESP) chapters of MFT 59 strongly support further return to onsite learning, we emphatically hold no confidence in the plans being implemented by Minneapolis Public Schools in their rush to Phase Five in-person learning,” the union said in a released statement.
School administrators have defended the call to bring teachers and students back to the classroom. When announcing the reopening plan last month, Gov. Tim Walz cited data showing younger children are less susceptible to transmitting the virus. State officials said bringing the youngest learners back could help meet children’s academic, social-emotional and nutritional needs during the pandemic.