Rapid omicron spread closes Minn. schools on short notice

Districts implementing a variety of different ways to educate students remotely

A woman gets a young girl a sticker.
School nurse Michelle Ricart gives a sticker to 5-year-old after she got her first COVID-19 vaccine at a Minneapolis school in November. The swift onslaught of omicron cases is sending teachers and students home across the state.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021 file

Last Sunday Minneapolis Public Schools leaders said they’d need to transition students to online learning for one day due to cold weather, driver shortages and a spike in COVID-19 cases. 

Within three days, Superintendent Ed Graff announced they’d need to send students home for a longer period of time: Jan. 14 through Jan. 30. 

“We’ve reached our tipping point,” he said. “As much as we did not want to move to this space, this is where we are.” 

More than a dozen districts in the state have transitioned some or all of their schools to a form of online learning. 

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St. Anthony-New Brighton was among the first to announce their shift to online last week. 

“We kept getting emails, ‘This staff member just tested positive, we have to cover their class’ …and we realized each one of these people who’s going out — they’re going to be out for 10 days,” said Wendy Webster, the district’s director of communications. “We wanted to develop a plan that would keep the learning consistent for kids.”

The district asked families who were able to keep their students at home for distance learning. But they gave families the option to keep sending students to in-person classes if they needed to. About 70 percent of their student population decided to learn from home through the end of the month. 

Minneapolis has a similar plan. District leaders are requiring teachers to work on site, but are asking families to keep students at home. They will continue to provide in-school virtual learning options for students who have nowhere else to go. The plan is to resume in-person learning for all on Jan. 31. 

Lindsey West is a teacher in the district as well as a parent of a kindergartener who attends a Minneapolis school. She said getting the news about the switch to distance learning was overwhelming. 

“As a parent and a teacher it puts me in a very sticky situation to say the least,” West said. “I can’t work at home but you expect my child to stay home. If I do bring her in I’m exposing her … I don’t know who she’s coming into contact with. … I have no time to prep for this synchronous all-the-time online learning. When am I supposed to do that? 

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Greta Callahan said many teachers in the district shared West’s frustration.

“This is indeed a safer option than what we currently have, but our expectations as educators and parents ourselves are higher than what we saw today,” Callahan said. “This plan leaves literally zero minutes for us to plan a transition so that our students could be adequately served and so that our staff can be well-prepared for this change.” 

Callahan said the union will consider taking the next step to authorize a strike vote next week as a result of where they’re at in mediation with the district. 

“We really feel like we have no other choice as a union,” she said. “We’ve attempted negotiations, we were put into mediation.” 

For Emily Vrieze-Kiemele, who has an 8- and 11-year-old attending Minneapolis schools, the pause in in-person learning has meant a disruption in learning and a scramble to cobble together child care. She and her husband both work in health care. They’ve teamed up with another family in an effort to keep their jobs while making sure their children are somewhere safe.  

When the district canceled classes on Monday, she couldn’t afford to stay home because there were so many staff missing at the clinic where she works as a nurse. Her husband, who can work from home, hosted their two children as well as the children of their friends who also had to work in person. 

“[The kids] got fed and they were safe,” Vrize-Kiemele said. “We have low expectations of learning on e-learning days. I know that the teacher keeps sending me messages about the fact that my kids aren’t doing stuff on e-learning days and I really don’t care because I don’t have the bandwidth to care. I understand it’s important, but I can’t miss work.”

Mattie Melin shares perspective on dealing with COVID in schools

The disruptions to in-person learning have reached schools around the state. But distance learning is taking a variety of forms. In Minnetonka, school leaders moved all middle school students to online learning through Jan. 21. All high school classes will be online, with opportunities to do that online work at home or inside school buildings. Elementary students will continue to learn in person. 

The Shakopee district will move all K-12 students into distance learning starting Jan. 18 through Jan. 28. The district’s community education, online academy and early learning centers will however continue to operate as normal as well as their athletics.

In the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, six schools have had to transition to remote learning, but the plan is to re-open them for in-person classes on Tuesday next week. 

A yellow public school bus pulls to a stop.
A Worthington Public Schools bus pulls to a stop in downtown Worthington, Minn., in September.
Hannah Yang | MPR News 2021 file

As of Wednesday evening, these are some districts that have had to announce some form of switch to in-person learning: