COVID learning stock

Staffing issues are leading some schools to shut their doors earlier than desired. (Photo by Maximilian Scheffler on Unsplash)

Demand for substitute teachers has increased as more and more teachers have had to quarantine or self isolate.

Schools across the region are feeling a staffing strain, forcing many to consider switching to distance learning sooner rather than later.

At Northfield Public Schools, despite minimal evidence of in-school transmission, students shifted into a distance learning model late last week until at least the end of winter break. Superintendent Matt Hillmann noted that change was necessitated due to the sharp increases in positive COVID-19 tests within Rice County over the last month and concern over whether the district would be able to sufficiently staff in-person activities due to the high number of employees who are away from work due to COVID-19-related complications. In the week of Nov. 6-13 alone, 72 of the 550-600 district wide staff were out per day. Of the 72, Northfield Public Schools was unable to fill approximately 13% of temporarily empty positions. In some situations, one positive test within a classroom necessitates the quarantining of the entire room. Staffing shortages can cause an especially hard impact when it involves staff who have multiple duties.

“That’s a real problem,” Hillmann said of the staff shortages.

Just a week ago, Owatonna Superintendent Jeff Elstad announced that the district had 42 staff members that were out of school in quarantine or isolation with seven to 10 unfilled positions currently being covered by teachers during their prep periods.

“Our staffing coverage is becoming an emergent piece for us at this point,” Elstad said before the Owatonna School Board approved the shift to distance learning. Staffing issues were among several factors which contributed to the switch.

Many regional districts have dipped into their federal COVID-19 funding to help pay for extra staff support, including educational assistants and substitutes. Additional funds have gone toward purchasing technology for teachers to teach from home. While some teachers are still able to teach from home during quarantine or isolation, others may be too sick to teach, effectively leaving a gap to be filled.

“When we are doing distance learning, if we have a teacher that falls ill that’s not able to conduct distance learning, we are repurposing some of our staff from the district to help with that, but we do also hire substitutes for the day to do distance learning,” Elstad told the People’s Press.

Even so, the district is having difficulty finding substitutes for positions across the district, as the pandemic has required substitutes to weigh their options. Many substitutes are unable to commit to subbing this year because of health concerns, Elstad said. Thus the general pool of fill-ins has decreased.

For those teachers who are still able to teach from home, a class supervisor, whether it’s another teacher, educational assistant, paraprofessional or substitute, is needed to monitor students in person in the classroom. In Medford schools, a paraprofessional is usually in the classroom monitoring students, according to Medford Superintendent Mark Ristau. Staffing issues are becoming more apparent at Medford schools too.

“It’s proven to be a little more difficult in the elementary, because maybe sometimes the kids are a little more squirrelly or there are some classroom management things, it’s more than just teaching and listening, there are some management things that come into play,” Ristau said of finding staff.

Blooming Prairie Superintendent Chris Staloch agreed that it’s more difficult to find classroom supervisors and substitutes for elementary level students compared to the older grades. Staloch said teachers who are still able to teach from home do so, pointing to the consistency and continued connections with students this option provides.

“Ideally, if we could have our teachers teaching, that is the best,” Staloch said.

However, Staloch said the district has been fortunate to have community members who were able to help out to fill some of those gaps when teachers are unable to teach. He credits them as one of the big reasons why Blooming Prairie was able to stay in their learning model for so long.

Ristau describes Medford’s substitute situation as “okay,” but also admits that the district has started needing teachers to step up and fill in where needed. Fortunately for both Medford and Owatonna schools, all staff have decided to return to teach this year despite the pandemic.

“Our staff is very committed to moving this forward and persevering through this pandemic,” Elstad said.

Blooming Prairie had one staff member who decided not to return because of COVID-19, which Staloch says is understandable given the situation.

Across Steele County, superintendents have praised teachers’ flexibility and hard work through this year’s ups and downs.

In-person learning won’t be an option for local schools for a while, as some schools have already transitioned to distance learning. By Nov. 30, the three school districts will be in distance learning, many with the goal of returning to their previous model by the second week of December.

The Faribault school district has had a similar trend, with all students going to distance learning with plans to remain in the model until the end of winter break.

“One of the reasons why we went to distance learning was because we were having a hard time finding substitutes,” Faribault Superintendent Todd Sesker said.

Like Steele County schools, Faribault schools have faced an increase in staff shortages in November due to staff becoming sick or having to quarantine.

By late October, all Faribault elementary schools were distance learning on Wednesdays. The switch was made so that students could practice for when the entire district provided distance learning.

Originally the district had planned to place only Faribault’s Lincoln Elementary in distance learning for two weeks, in part because of staffing issues. However, a few days later officials announced a district-wide closure and model switch.

Faribault teachers are teaching from home in quarantine and isolation if they are able to do so, according to Sesker.

Reach reporter Ashley Rezachek at 507-444-2376. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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