St. Paul superintendent 'really wants to keep our schools open' as COVID cases, staff absences grow

·4 min read

Jan. 5—Superintendent Joe Gothard intends to keep St. Paul's public schools open despite a sudden surge in coronavirus cases that is exacerbating staffing shortages.

As of Wednesday morning, the district already had tallied 623 new cases among students, staff and visitors this week, compared to 690 in all of December.

One in every eight bus routes was canceled Tuesday because no driver was available, leaving around 1,000 students to find some other way to get to school and back.

And although the 302 teachers and other licensed staffers who've been out this week isn't that much higher than a typical January, the district is finding substitutes for fewer than half of those jobs.

"We knew this was going to be tough" with the more contagious omicron variant taking over the state, Gothard told the school board Tuesday evening.

HARDER TO FIND SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS

Before the pandemic, the district was able to find substitute teachers nearly 90 percent of the time. Lately, that number has been 40-45 percent, Gothard said.

Gothard said he emailed unlicensed staff on Tuesday urging them to sign up as substitute teachers through a fast-track approval process with the district's vendor, Teachers on Call.

St. Paul also has begun to tap a group of 118 staffers with teaching licenses who work in other areas of the district.

"Every single person who can help is going to help our schools," Gothard said.

Student absence is high, too, as 21 percent were out Monday as classes resumed following winter break — about twice as many as usual.

BETTER IN SCHOOL

Like many urban U.S. districts, St. Paul closed its buildings for as many as 13 months before reopening in April. Learning plummeted in that time, and student surveys highlighted their mental health struggles.

Health and education experts largely agree that closing schools in an effort to control spread of the coronavirus was misguided.

"Our children learn best when they're in the classroom. Their mental and emotional well-being benefit most in the classroom," Minnesota Department of Education spokeswoman Mamisoa Knutson said Tuesday.

Staffing shortages, however, are making it difficult to stay open.

The St. Anthony-New Brighton school district announced Wednesday that a lack of teachers and bus drivers is forcing a shift to asynchronous online learning for three weeks. School buildings will remain open, but students are urged to stay home, and there will be no live instruction for anyone.

The district, which has about 1,750 students across three schools, said it's had 32 new coronavirus cases in four days this year, compared to an average of eight cases a week in November.

The switch to online learning "allows time for staff and students, who test positive and don't feel well, to isolate as COVID-19 continues to spread through our community," the district said.

The Robbinsdale Area district also closed a middle and high school this week, citing high numbers of staff absences.

'KEEP OUR SCHOOLS OPEN'

The St. Paul district so far has stayed open this school year, aided by $207 million in federal grants over the next three years — around $6,000 per student — aimed at keeping schools open and recovering lost learning. A chunk of that money is paying for better ventilation systems, bus driver bonuses, and more custodians, nurses and nutrition workers.

Gothard said that besides the instruction challenges, going back and forth between in-person and remote instruction makes it hard to feed kids.

"I really want to keep our schools open," Gothard said Tuesday, adding that any decisions to shift to distance learning likely would be made "school by school."

Leah VanDassor, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, said Wednesday that her members are not clamoring to go back to distance learning, but she wants the district to articulate how it will decide when in-person won't be possible for a time.

Some schools, she said, have one-quarter of their staffs out this week, while others are at full strength.

"None of us think that going to distance learning is going to be a benefit to our students," VanDassor said, "but I'm not sure what kind of education's happening when you have a rotation of subs with two or three different people a week or ... you've got a class where half of them are on quarantine."

SHOTS, TESTS

The St. Paul district in October began requiring employees either to say they've been vaccinated or to get tested weekly for the coronavirus. In the first week, just 62 percent had said they are vaccinated; that number now is just shy of 72 percent.

Gothard said that later this month, he'll ask the school board to update its vaccinate-or-test mandate to require staff get booster shots.

"We need people to go get boosters to get that added protection," health and wellness director Mary Langworthy said.

District buildings have been hosting weekly vaccine clinics, and another 70,000 rapid tests for the coronavirus are on their way to the district. Previously available only to symptomatic students, the rapid tests soon will be offered to staff, as well.

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