School districts turn to distance learning as COVID creates staffing challenges

Just six school days into the 2022 school year, Minnesota schools are shifting.

In Robbinsdale Area Schools both Armstrong High School and Sandburg Middle School are back in distance learning until Jan. 18, “due to the current number of positive and symptomatic COVID cases among students and staff,” the district stated.

Fridley Public Schools has “temporarily transitioned to blended learning” — effective Monday and lasting the next few weeks.

And Monday evening, Osseo Area Schools announced its students would transition to distance learning as well.

The district said middle and high school students would make the switch immediately on Tuesday with elementary students to follow on Wednesday. The district plans to return all students to in-person learning on Jan. 24.

“We knew that the omicron would come in and we knew that it would come in big and fast, and that is what we’re seeing,” said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease expert with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Ehresmann says vaccinations, boosters and masks are so important right now.

“Omicron is spreading so quickly right now that it’s really important for people to take action immediately if they develop any sort of symptoms,” she said. “That will help to slow down the spread that we’re seeing.”

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard says the challenge has been great.

“Going into winter break, we knew that it would likely be challenging on the other side, but it’s probably exceeded some of those expectations with the number of absences we’ve had, but most importantly just the lack of staff to cover,” Gothard said.

The district says teacher absences increased each day last week, peaking on Friday.

“Back in 2019 with one person missing here or there we had a 90-95% fill rate. The fill rate now is hovering in that 40% rate, and we’re one district of many who would probably give a very similar number,” Gothard said.

Gothard says St. Paul Public Schools averaged a 76% attendance rate last week. Despite that, he remains steadfast in his goal.

“If I am going to advocate for anything it is for our doors to stay open because it is the best place for our students to be,” he said.