Staffing, transportation and illness disrupt first week of school in MN

Three children sit in a minivan.
Kaori Yamada helps her three children get ready to ride to school during the first week in front of their Minneapolis home on Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When Shakopee Superintendent Mike Redmond saw his school district hallways and athletic fields filled with students returning to class last week, he realized he’d been missing them more than he knew. 

“There’s always a really unique excitement and energy and enthusiasm with that fresh start — the start of the school year,” Redmond said. “This year there was something even more...This felt, again, I don’t even know what normal is, but it felt kind of like how school’s supposed to feel.”

Classes for the 2021-2022 K-12 school year started in Shakopee after Labor Day. Like much of Minnesota, the vast majority of Shakopee K-12 students are actually going to school in person this year. Last year, schools had to provide students the option to learn online, and many families went that route. This year, fewer districts are offering distance learning.

In Shakopee, as with other places that are offering an online option, most families are choosing in person for their students. Only about 100 out of a close to 8,000-person student body have chosen online learning in Shakopee.

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But districts are having trouble hiring the staff they need this year. Bus drivers, paraprofessionals, teachers, food service workers and child care workers are all in short supply. 

In Shakopee, there are still 24 paraprofessional staff positions that have not yet been filled. That’s compared to eight to nine para positions that remained open last year. And it’s on top of 50 classroom teacher positions they had to eliminate last year due to budget cuts. 

“We’ve got higher class size targets...but we’re stretched pretty thin in a lot of places, and people are doing the best they can,” Redmond said. 

In other districts, there are bus driver, food service or child care worker shortages. Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul recently emailed families asking for volunteers or short-term help in the cafeteria.

“We are currently very short staffed,” the email read. “Even helping for a few weeks would make a difference until more permanent staff are hired.” 

In Bloomington Public Schools, administrators are struggling to hire the people they need to staff early childhood as well as before and after school programs. Rick Kaufman, the community relations manager for Bloomington Public Schools, says they’ve managed to reduce the child care program waitlist by enlisting high school students to staff after-school hours. 

“We started the school year with a 200 student waitlist, now down to about just under 100,” Kaufman said. “We’ve done well to really attract high school 16-and-older students that want a little after school income by participating in our primarily after school child care programs.” 

The Stillwater, St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts have all struggled to find enough bus drivers to ensure transportation for all their students. In many cases, families have had to scramble to find their own solutions to get students to classes on time. 

Packed buses have also been a problem. Parent Kaori Yamada chose not to put her children on overcrowded buses and has worked out a carpool with three other families. 

“We did relatively well through the first-day chaos,” Yamada said. “I know that many buses canceled with little notice and left both schools and families hanging to get kids to and from school.” 

Pandemic-related pressures are showing up in more than staffing gaps at schools. Students, families and staff are also experiencing anxiety as they return to classes following a really difficult 18 months while the delta variant continues to spread. 

“Kids are worn out, and a full day of school — that sense of having to be up and at ‘em — getting used to those things is a process,” said Josh Collins, director of communications at Roseville Area Schools. “The social-emotional needs have been so significant out of COVID. I think that’s true for not just the kids. That’s true for staff and for parents, too.”

Adjusting to new routines is part of every new academic year. But this year, there are an unusual number of students adjusting to new spaces. Some are returning to classrooms after a year of doing online school at home. And larger numbers of students are seeing their school buildings for the first time ever. In many districts, both kindergarten and first graders are in new routines and environments, as those first-grade students did online learning last school year.

Some districts are taking additional steps to ensure that the routines they’re establishing now won’t have to change as the school year continues. 

The St. Paul, Minneapolis, Red Lake and Roseville school district boards have all voted to require staff be vaccinated against COVID-19. In Roseville, staff have until Oct. 15 to get the vaccine or else undergo weekly testing. 

“While most of our employees are already vaccinated, we believe this step will create an additional incentive for anyone who remains unvaccinated and will improve the likelihood that we will be able to continue with in-person learning,” Roseville Superintendent Jenny Loeck wrote in an email on Wednesday following the board’s decision.

Still, many students, families and districts have already seen COVID-19 disrupt in-person classroom time. In Albert Lea nearly 300 students had to quarantine after dozens of students came down with COVID-19 infections. 

In Roseville, there are also already students who are in quarantine, and Covid-19 infections are disrupting school attendance and adding work for staff.

“We were already getting calls from some parents who’d had exposures out in the community before school even started,” Collins said. “Our nurses are some of the busiest people I’ve ever seen — fielding calls and questions, and some of what they’re doing is just helping people understand what are the safety mitigations we have in place.”

Bloomington Public Schools has already had close to 20 COVID-19 cases. 

“I think people are really rejuvenated and excited to see kids back in school,” Kaufman said. “But it is tempered a bit with concern about the [delta] variant.”