Updated Jan 10, 2022 - News

Twin Cities schools struggle to staff classrooms as Omicron spreads

Illustration of a teacher's chalkboard with "Now Hiring" written across it.
Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

School districts across the Twin Cities are struggling to keep their classrooms staffed due to a teacher shortage that has been exacerbated by rising COVID infections.

Why it matters: Schools are getting creative to staff classrooms, upping pay for substitutes, using support staff as fill-ins and paying teachers to cover for their colleagues during prep periods.

What's happening: Already facing a decline in new teachers, schools entered the 2021-22 year short-staffed.

  • But now as the Omicron variant continues to spread infected teachers, or those who temporarily lose child care due to exposures, are having to take days off.

Zoom in: After returning from the holiday break, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) was down 200 to 300 teachers a day last week, according to the Star Tribune.

  • Monday is a virtual learning day due to a bus driver shortage, cold weather and COVID, MPS told parents.

Meanwhile, St. Paul Public Schools has only been able to cover about 40% of teacher absences with subs due to recent high demand, said superintendent Joe Gothard.

  • Osseo Area Schools had about 600 staff out on Friday, said Kelly Wilson, president of the Osseo Local #1212 teachers union. The previous high for the district had been around 350, he said.

Between the lines: Added responsibilities are burning teachers out, said Denise Specht, president of the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota.

  • Some are quitting mid-year and breaking their contracts, which was unheard of pre-pandemic because doing so means they could lose their license, she said.
  • "In some places we're hearing people have just literally left the keys on the desk and have walked out because they are so overwhelmed and exhausted and stressed and they don't care if there's a possibility that they're putting their license in jeopardy," Specht said.

Of note: A spokesperson for the state's Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board said the agency doesn't have data on how many teachers have broken their contracts.

What to watch: St. Paul Public Schools is considering a plan to add five digital learning days between now and the end of the school year.

  • Gothard said it's meant to be a respite for staff working in depleted schools. They've sent a survey to families, but nothing has been decided.
  • "Our priority is to keep our doors open and to keep students learning in person," he said.

The bottom line: If these Band-Aids don't work, districts could be forced to close schools temporarily and go virtual, which New Brighton-St. Anthony has already decided to do.

  • Wilson said he would like to see Osseo do that for two weeks to get students and staff healthy.
  • "How long can we sustain this? We already have people leaving their jobs," he said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a revision from the Osseo Local #1212 teachers union to the number of staff absent on Friday. Roughly 600 workers were out, not 700.

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