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Covid regulations stress schools

Cases, symptoms put staff on quarantine with no subs


September 25, 2020

Wrenshall superintendent Kim Belcastro didn’t need to say it. Her face told all.

“It’s been a tough week,” she told the school board Tuesday night during a special meeting. The day before, she announced that the school would be going to full distance learning because of staff shortages related to Covid-19.

It means there will be no on-campus classes for elementary students who had been attending twice a week and high school students once a week.

The special meeting Tuesday resulted in school board members agreeing that pre-kindergarteners and kindergarteners will meet in person with teachers as long as they are able.

Wrenshall has joined a clutch of schools across the state and region struggling with finding replacements to teach students. There isn’t necessarily a viral outbreak in Wrenshall, but enough people have shown Covid-19 symptoms to keep them out of school, and those they live with on quarantine.

The small school has a small staff, and having just a few people out has its repercussions, said Niki Rowland, a Wrenshall teacher who is also the local Education Minnesota union president.

“There are no subs to be had,” Rowland said. “We’re trying to do what we can.”

“We’re grateful the administration is putting health and safety first,” she said.

Belcastro and Rowland said that going to only distance learning is the best way to deal with what’s happening at the school.

As of earlier this week, there was one staff member, who had limited contact with students, who tested positive for Covid-19.

But others were out with symptoms and quarantining after suspected contact with ill people. The district has 35 teachers total.

“It’s not that we have an outbreak,” said school board member Janaki Fisher Merritt. “We knew we were going to have people out. But just having this number all at once threw a big wrench in the works.”

Distance learning is difficult for elementary students, which is why Belcastro and teachers recommended at least the youngest students have access to face-to-face learning. Kindergarten teachers have been innovative by using outdoor learning spaces on the campus and classes have been small with students split into two groups for twice-a-week sessions in school.

The district will work to bring more students in if the opportunity allows before the end of the first quarter. Wrenshall plans to go mostly distance learning until at least Nov. 9. That’s the end of the quarter and when the construction project at the school is expected to be finished, allowing for more usable space at the school.

Other districts

Esko superintendent Aaron Fischer said his district is sure to face the staffing problem.

“We are doing OK with subs right now,” he said. “I foresee issues. We have a small pool for teachers, bus drivers, paras and custodians.”

Fischer said that aside from Covid-19 problems, the regular cold and flu season can also take out staff and students. And distinguishing between the flu and Covid-19 may mean extra precautions when it comes to keeping people out of the way for spread. The district has to follow rules for quarantine for any Covid-19 symptoms.

No staff members had tested positive in Esko as of Tuesday.

Cloquet Superintendent Michael Cary said Cloquet is experiencing “higher than normal staff absences” right now largely because of family members.

“Since the signs of Covid that we’re supposed to monitor for mimic so many other common illnesses, staff are needing to miss days due to family members getting simple illnesses, like the common cold, and awaiting Covid test results,” he said, adding that no staff members have gotten sick with Covid-19 this school year, although one reported being sick this summer.

He referred to the state’s new “Covid-19 decision tree for people in schools, youth and child care programs,” a flow chart that people are supposed to follow by determining if they or family members have more common or less common symptoms and working their way through a series of questions and actions. If a person does get tested, according to the chart, they and other household members should quarantine until they get negative test results, which can take several days.

While he praises those who are cautious, Cary said there also needs to be a balance. If a person has seasonal allergies and gets a runny nose at the same time every year, they probably don’t need a Covid test when the runny nose reappears at the appointed time.

There are also fewer substitute teachers available to cover the increased absences.

Cary said he talked with district principals, who told him they usually have more substitutes who are retired rather than just starting their working life.

“Our typical substitutes tend to be retirees who are looking to stay engaged in the community and make a little extra money in the process,” Cary said. “But they are the same group of people who (A) don’t need the resource, and (B) are also likely to be in one of more vulnerable categories,” Cary said.

Most years, districts also will see some brand new teachers getting experience substitute teaching while they look for a job, but many of those have been hired due to a need for more staff (to cover both distance and in-person learning during the pandemic) across many districts.

For now, Cloquet is continuing with its current in-person learning model. Whether they change will depend on whether the number of positive cases in the county continues to increase, or whether they have substitutes available to cover staff absences.

In the meantime, Cary is hoping a few more people will decide to try their hand at substitute teaching.

“Most people don’t know that you can substitute teach in schools on a day-to-day basis if you have a four-year degree,” he said. “It doesn’t need to be a degree in teaching.” (See “Subs needed” for more details.)

The struggle

Wrenshall’s Belcastro said she spoke with top officials at the state departments of education and health. They supported the district’s decision to change its learning model, saying creativity and flexibility is the way of the world right now.

“This is real,” Belcastro told the school board Tuesday, “And there’s lots of districts like us.”

“We knew we were going to go in and out of these learning models,” she said. She acknowledged that forcing distance learning on elementary students is difficult for staff and families. “This is the furthest from what we want to be doing,” she said. “We have to come to terms with making adjustments. It’s a different time.”

“This isn’t a huge surprise to me,” Fisher Merritt said of the learning model change. “I’m just surprised it came this soon. We all just have to be patient with each other. None of this is going to be easy.”

Belcastro said the district had a good start to the year despite all the pandemic upset in normalcy. She’s hoping families will be as flexible as she has been with day-to-day changes. “It’s really hard. It’s hard to make everyone happy.”


Subs needed

Local school districts are desperately seeking substitutes in many categories, from bus drivers to paraprofessionals, but especially teachers.

A teaching degree is not required to be a substitute teacher.

In most cases, a bachelor’s degree is required. So is a Minnesota short-call substitute licence, which also requires a background check fingerprint card, official transcript and more. The cost is $90.25, less than a day’s pay for a substitute teacher in this area. Usually the state can complete the license in 30 days or fewer.

Find out more about getting licensed to be a substitute teacher at or by contacting the state Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board.

— Pine Knot News


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