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Greater Minnesota schools hold out on distance learning amid surge

After seeing negative impacts on learning and student mental health during sustained periods of distance learning over the pandemic, going back online is a move school leaders are still reluctant to take.

School bus line
School buses line up in south Fargo in 2011.
The Forum
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ST. PAUL — As a surge of COVID-19 infections strains school staffing and sends students home sick, Minnesota school districts returning to distance learning appear to be among the minority for now.

Rochester, Minneapolis and several Twin Cities-area school districts on Wednesday, Jan. 12, announced plans to return to online learning. Minneapolis school officials said the district was “significantly” short on staff and will remain in distance learning from Friday, Jan. 14, to Jan 31.

Meanwhile, a surge of cases in Rochester schools pushed district leaders to take classes online until the end of the month as well. During the week of Jan. 3-9, the district of about 18,000 students reported 564 new COVID-19 cases. The most the district had reported during any week before this school year was 163, the Rochester Post Bulletin Reported.

“We did everything we could to avoid taking this step, but staff shortages make it impossible to operate schools amidst the surge in this variant,” Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel said in a tweet announcing the move.

After seeing negative impacts on learning and student mental health during sustained periods of distance learning over the pandemic, going back online is a move school leaders in Greater Minnesota are still reluctant to take. Many school districts across the region do not have immediate plans, and instead are taking measures such as canceling final exams or taking emergency days off in order to cope with the omicron variant wave.

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Duluth Public Schools Superintendent John Magas said while the “vast majority” of students, teachers, and families do not enjoy distance learning, his district is prepared to take steps to return to it if needed. For now, he said, the situation in his district has not reached the point where sending students home makes sense.

“We know that in-person learning is best for our students. However, we also have to make sure we are monitoring a number of different variables to ensure safety. Our intention is to stay open,” Magas said. “If it becomes a necessity at some point for us or other districts I think it’s important for us to be ready to do so.”

Magas said a district decision on remote learning will come down to several factors, including rates of infection, ability to provide critical staffing, and transportation. For now, Duluth schools have canceled final exams and all student assemblies , dances concerts and other large gatherings.

Bemidji Area Schools on Thursday, Jan. 13, announced an emergency school closure for Tuesday, Jan. 18, as surging COVID-19 cases lead to significant staffing shortages.

“Over the past few days (including today), our teacher substitute fill rate has been under 50%, meaning that more than half of open/necessary positions remain unfilled,” the district said in an announcement. “Transportation, food service, custodians, paraprofessionals and other support staff are facing similar challenges.”

The publicly available COVID-19 mitigation plan for Bemidji schools does not currently list distance learning as one of its mitigation options.

Just across the Minnesota-North Dakota border in Fargo, where a public school masking requirement is set to expire next week , the school district does not have a specific threshold set for when it would return to remote learning, according to Fargo Public Schools spokesperson AnnMarie Campbell. Fargo schools have held classes in person for about one year, and the district does not have any immediate plans to return online.

“We are definitely prioritizing in-person instruction at this time,” Campbell said. “While we have had an increase in cases in our district it has not pushed us that point.”

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been nearly 55,000 cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota public school students pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, according to state data. Of those cases, 218 were hospitalized, 30 ended up in an intensive care unit and three died. Nineteen Minnesota public school staff members have died of COVID-19.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONCORONAVIRUS
Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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