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Minneapolis schools brace for omicron

3January 2022

Minneapolis school leaders say they intend to keep students in classrooms as the rapidly spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 means more teacher absences and student quarantines.

Superintendent Ed Graff said in a letter to parents on Sunday that the district has no plans to move all schools into distance learning, although individual schools may temporarily switch to remote learning if needed.

“We’ve moved from fatigue to exhaustion,” Graff said during a news conference on Monday. As of Monday morning, 285 teachers were absent due to illness or travel delays, he said. “Obviously that puts pressure on the district and our system.”

Gov. Tim Walz said education leaders are “right to be concerned” about what the omicron variant will mean for the state’s schools.

A spike in cases “will take a hit on staffing, and when it comes to schools, we already know that subs are in short supply,” Walz said during a Monday morning interview on MPR News, adding that vaccinations, booster shots, testing and masking can help keep Minnesota schools open.

In Minneapolis, the state’s third largest district with 3,500 teachers, Graff said roughly 200 to 300 are absent each day. He said it’s typical to see an increase in teacher absences right after a holiday break, when some extend their time off, and this year has seen travel delays. Unfilled positions and the ongoing substitute shortage, however, make it difficult to fill in gaps when teachers take a day off.

Minneapolis schools upped the pay rate for substitutes this year and created full-time sub positions in 30 schools in an effort to address the shortage. If there are no substitutes available in the district’s pool, schools then turn to other licensed staff — literacy coaches, for example — to fill in, Graff said. And if that’s not enough, staff may be pulled from the district’s headquarters to help out in classrooms.

Still, teachers often have to lose out on their prep time to cover for understaffed classrooms.

“I know that’s an extreme burden and stressor right now,” Graff said. “The alternative in some cases would be to shut down school and move to distance learning … That is not something that is taken lightly.”

The presidents of the Minneapolis teachers union and the union representing the district’s education support professionals are calling on district leaders to offer a more “consistent, sustainable and effective response” to the omicron surge. The two plan to propose solutions at a news conference on Tuesday.

Greta Callahan, the president of the teachers chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said the district needs a plan for teaching students in quarantine, as well as how to address increased staff absences and fill open positions. The teachers union is in mediation with the district.

District leaders will meet in the next two weeks with a Regional Support Team of public health and education officials to review the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends reducing the quarantine period after a positive COVID-19 test. Several other large districts across the state, including St. Paul, Osseo and Rochester, are also considering the new guidance and what it may mean for student quarantine protocol.

In October, Minneapolis schools reduced a 14-day quarantine requirement to 10 days for students who had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Teachers often put their lessons online for students who are quarantining, Graff said, and the district is looking at adding more after-school support and resources for students at home.

Still, the challenge, he said, is finding the staff to offer such help.

“This is a constant challenge,” Graff said. “This is not a question of, do we want to invest in these opportunities? It’s about, do we have the people available to do the work.”

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