Absences, cancellations climb as COVID wave hits short-staffed Minnesota schools

People standing far apart from each other and people at tables.
Students keep social distance as they line up to pick up books, work and their belongings at North High School gym. An omicron-fueled surge in virus cases is sending teachers, students and bus drivers home just days after the return from winter break.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

An omicron-fueled surge in coronavirus cases is sending Minnesota teachers, students and bus drivers home just days after returning from winter break.

On Wednesday, the New Brighton-St. Anthony district announced students would move to distance learning for three weeks due to COVID-19 cases among staff and bus drivers.

Robbinsdale Area Schools, another suburban Minneapolis district, shifted two schools to distance learning this week, citing the number of positive and asymptomatic COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

On Thursday, Worthington schools in southwestern Minnesota canceled classes for several days after seeing “rapidly increasing illness numbers in both students and staff.” 

While the vast majority of schools remain open and in-person, school leaders say cases affecting students and staff are climbing exponentially. The spike’s come so quickly that the Minnesota School Boards Association hasn’t been able to survey members to count how many are having to close their doors.

“There’s a few that have gone into distance learning. There’s a lot more talking about it,” said Greg Abbott, director of communications for the school boards group. “Everybody’s trying to keep kids in school as much as they can.”

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Last year, state education officials tracked districts and schools switching to distance or hybrid learning under the governor’s emergency order. It is not doing the same sort of tracking this academic year.

‘Extreme burden’

In Northfield, south of the Twin Cities metro area, the number of positive COVID-19 school district cases doubled from Monday to Tuesday this week. There have been more than 135 positive cases in the last two weeks, compared to 332 positive cases all of last semester. 

“We have seen an increase in positive cases. I would consider it a substantial increase in positive cases since we returned from winter break,” said Matt Hillmann, superintendent of Northfield Public Schools.

Masking is still required in Northfield district buildings. Vaccination rates among students are close to 60 percent and rising as more younger students receive their doses. The district distributed COVID-19 rapid tests to families and staff before winter break. It’s planning this month to start a “test-to-stay” program to shorten quarantine times for students.

“We have nearly all of the layered mitigation strategies that the Department of Health recommends, and we are still seeing an increase (in virus spread). We feel about as good as you can, but also understand the next few weeks are going to be difficult,” Hillman said, adding, “We’ll do everything we can to maintain that commitment of uninterrupted in-person learning.”

In the Minneapolis Public Schools district, the number of staff absences has been rising through the week. On Monday morning, the district noted 285 teacher absences — near the high range of what it typically experiences.

By Wednesday, the district had canceled after-school programming to try to mitigate an ongoing bus driver shortage, exacerbated by a rise in illness. District officials said they were asking educators to teach during their prep time and pulling district staff to substitute in classrooms. 

Teachers in the district have reported unusually high student absences — up to 30 or 50 percent of their classroom at times. Others said they were having to combine classes in auditoriums because there weren’t enough teachers to properly staff classrooms. 

“I want you to imagine what it’s like teaching algebra in a class like that when a great percentage of your students are missing every week. It’s nearly impossible, the job we’re being asked to do,” said Tiffany Doherty — an eighth grade math teacher for Minneapolis Public Schools.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has raised concerns about the number of absences. 

“We don’t have people to fill in for those absences, so every single morning our school secretaries, our clerical workers, our principals, our other admin in the building, our social workers are coming together to fill in the pieces when there’s an absence,” said MFT president Greta Callahan.

“Our students in those classes have six or seven educators a day filling in to be that substitute teacher, which creates not great lessons for our kids, certainly not consistency and on top of that more possibility of COVID spread.” 

The union has also asked the district to come up with a consistent plan for quarantining students.

“We’ve been calling for a plan in place across the district that is safe for students and those closest to them in buildings,” Callahan said. “Here we are again, and our students are the ones who are suffering most. We’re calling for a plan … There hasn’t been one, and that has created the most inequitable conditions for our students.” 

District leaders have also expressed concern with the number of absences.

“It’s an extreme burden (on teachers) and stressor right now. And certainly looking at options beyond this practice is difficult because the alternative in some cases would be we would then have to shut down school and move to distance learning,” said Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff. “That’s something we have to evaluate — the number of things we’re considering before we make a shift like that. It’s not something that’s taken lightly.” 

‘We will not predict anything’

Staff absences are also affecting rural schools. In the St. Francis district north of the Twin Cities, superintendent Beth Giese at the beginning of the week said she had not yet seen what she considers an omicron surge in cases directly affecting her schools. But within days that situation had changed dramatically.

On Wednesday she started her workday at around 3 a.m., checking weather and road conditions. Her district has been unable to staff all its bus routes and has asked parents to drive their own children to classes. She herself drove a shuttle this week to pick up students whose families were unable to transport them. 

“The whole state — all of my colleagues, superintendent friends, HR directors — no one can find teacher subs. And assistants and paraprofessionals are a close second. Functioning in those classrooms is wearing our staff down. They’re really tired,” Giese said. 

To fill absences, she’s had to shuffle staff around, which has too often meant canceling music, art and gym classes — parts of the school day she knows are vital to students. 

“Those kids aren’t getting the specialists and fine arts and all of those things. We strive so hard to graduate well-rounded kids … but we’re having to pull the specialists to cover classes,” Giese said. “Even though classroom instruction is going really well, some of those extras that make our kids really well rounded, right now there’s been impacts in those areas.” 

By Friday morning, however, the St. Francis district had 90 out of 700 staff absent — some from COVID-19 infections, but many others from additional illnesses or sick family members. Giese realized early on Friday she’d have to spend the day substitute teaching. She’s not sure yet what next week will look like. 

“When I get back to the office after subbing all day, I’ll take time to evaluate. I’ll go through the reasoning for my (staff) absences over the weekend, and then I’ll make a decision about next week,” Giese said. 

In St. Francis as in the rest of the state, educators and school leaders are doing what they can to keep students in classrooms. And compared to this same time last year, that has been largely successful, but the situation is changing quickly throughout the state. 

“This year we have so many tools to try to mitigate the virus and we know the dramatic impact that having kids be at home when they don’t want to be at home has on them. And so we are going to everything that we can within our power to keep in-person learning,” said Hillmann. “That’s our commitment, but we will not predict anything because we have learned that it is just fool's gold to try to predict anything with this.”