How is back to school going in Minnesota?

Education reporter Elizabeth Shockman shares what she's hearing

A sign hangs outside of a classroom.
In this September 2020 photo, a sign outside of a classroom reminds students to practice social distancing inside of Hastings Middle School.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

The third year of pandemic schooling is now well underway in districts across the state. This year is already shaping up to be markedly different than last year.

MPR News education reporter Elizabeth Shockman checked in with families and school leaders to learn more about the start of classes. Here are highlights from her conversation with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

On the first few days of school

One big difference between this year and last is that the vast majority of Minnesota K-12 students are actually going to school in person this year. Last year schools were required to offer online options for students, and many families chose to keep their students at home for distance learning.

This year, many fewer districts are offering online options. In those places that are offering an online option, most families are choosing in person for their students.

So schools are full of students again this year. You’ve got that normal, exciting back-to-school feeling. Many of the families and school leaders I spoke to were excited about that.

On the bus driver shortage

Schools, like many sectors, are having trouble hiring the staff they need this year. Every district I spoke to this week and last was having staffing trouble. Bus drivers, paraprofessionals, teachers, food service workers and child care workers. Not every district has trouble finding staff in all of these areas, but they’re all strapped to fill some of their positions.

One district I spoke to is trying to recruit high schoolers to staff after-school child care programs. Another district is taking legal action against their busing contractor after staffing-shortage-related disruptions to transportation services.

So there are these gaps that are causing problems for families and students. And even where districts are managing to run things smoothly, one superintendent told me they just don’t have as much margin as they want to, which could mean disruptions later if staff get sick or have to quarantine.

On how students are doing

Students, just like everyone, have had a really difficult 18 months. They’re excited to be back in school, but there are a lot of mental health struggles. I’m hearing from many districts that relationship-building and mental health support are a main focus for this return to school.

The return to school can take a lot of energy as students, families and educators figure out new routines, but this year seems to be an especially large adjustment. Some students are coming back to classrooms after a year of doing online school in their pajamas.

But there are also larger numbers of students who are seeing their school buildings for the first time ever. In some places, both kindergarten and first-grade students are learning new routines because those first-grade students didn’t come to in-person school last year.

All the districts I spoke to said that they were spending an unusual amount of time figuring out routines and helping students adjust.

On possible school district vaccine mandates

The Red Lake School District’s board made the decision last month to require school employees get the vaccine. They need to show proof of vaccination by Nov. 8.

Roseville Area Schools passed a resolution requiring district employees to either get the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo weekly testing.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.