Surging community spread of COVID-19 is sidelining a staggering number of teachers and school staff — and forcing many districts to shift to distance learning when there’s no one to mind the classroom.

Across Minnesota, school administrators say measures like universal mask wearing, stepped-up hygiene and social distancing have been effective in keeping the virus from circulating widely within schools. But as COVID-19 cases rise outside school buildings, more school staff are ending up ill or quarantined because they or a family member spent time with someone who tested positive, usually at gatherings unrelated to school. And increasingly, districts are unable to find substitutes to fill in behind absent teachers, prompting them to staff classrooms with school secretaries and counselors, principals and classroom aides.

Since October, the St. Cloud Area School District has been averaging 50 to 60 staff members out on quarantine each day. Last week, that number jumped to 130, including teachers, bus drivers and administrators. Tracy Flynn Bowe, the district’s executive director of human resources and labor relations, said the situation has been getting worse, showing no signs of leveling off.

“That’s the trend line we’re looking at,” she said. “I’ve got a graph that looks like the Rocky Mountains, heading up.”

With three of St. Cloud’s eight elementary schools already in distance learning because of staff shortages, the district announced last week that it would soon shift all elementary students from hybrid to distance learning, with hopes of bringing them back in January.

COVID-related staffing shortages are hitting districts of all sizes, and in all locations.

For East Central Schools, a rural district north of Hinckley, problems started popping up soon after the school year began, with all students back for in-person instruction. One teacher tested positive, and another six had to quarantine. In an instant, seven of the district’s 61 teachers were out of commission for two weeks.

Additional cases and quarantine requirements pushed some of the district’s students into hybrid instruction, and more recently, forced a move for all students to distance learning. By midweek last week, 16 teachers were in quarantine, plus the district’s entire administrative staff. That included Superintendent Andy Almos, who said he was again trying to game plan for the pandemic’s many twists and turns.

“All the way from March up until five minutes ago, when I was on the phone with a teacher who just tested positive, we’ve been playing ‘what ifs’ every day,” he said.

Substitutes in short supply

For many districts, the questions about how to carry on are magnified by another dilemma: What if you don’t have enough substitute teachers to fill in behind those who can’t be in school?

Typically, districts depend on substitute teacher pools that are heavy on retirees. But in the pandemic many older substitutes, at higher risk of COVID-19 complications, have opted to sit the year out from being in the classroom.

Teachers on Call, a Bloomington company that contracts with more than 100 Minnesota school districts to provide substitutes, has seen its numbers drop. On average, the number of substitutes on its roster is down 30% from normal levels. Meanwhile, the number of districts seeking last-minute replacements — rather than those for absences planned long in advance — is on the rise. Even before the pandemic, those were the toughest substitute jobs to fill.

Al Sowers, the company’s vice president, said Teachers on Call has been able to fill a higher percentage of positions than some districts that use their own roster of substitutes. He said that’s because schools aren’t usually able to focus exclusively on trying to recruit people for the jobs.

“We’re recruiting seven days a week, 24/7,” he said.

But straining under unusually high absentee rates, some districts are taking matters into their own hands.

St. Louis Park Public Schools hired multiple substitutes for each school building. Those working in the elementary schools open for hybrid learning are asked to report every day, rather than waiting to be called to fill in. Hopkins Public Schools has an ad up on the district’s homepage, seeking “temporary floater” teachers and paraprofessionals to work in its elementary schools.

Meanwhile, the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District sent out a direct appeal to parents, asking any with a four-year degree — required for a short-call teaching license — to consider becoming substitute teachers.

Superintendent Renee Corneille said the district typically fares well with a list of about 20 regular substitutes. But this year, just two said they’d be willing to work in schools. She said the district decided to reach out to parents on a recent Sunday evening, when it became clear there was no one available to cover a kindergarten class. Late that evening, school leaders tracked down a willing parent.

“We’re prioritizing as much in-person [instruction] for as long as we can,” Corneille said. “We know the numbers are getting bad, and we know that might mean an eventual shutdown, but we want our kids to have the opportunity for as long as we can.

Community key to solution

On the northwest edge of the metro, the Elk River district has had thousands of students and staff end up in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, or being a close contact of someone who tested positive. In recent weeks, the numbers have gone up exponentially; between Oct. 26 and Nov. 4 alone, more than 1,500 students and nearly 100 staff members were quarantined.

Superintendent Dan Bittman said 63 teachers and 75 other staff members were absent Thursday, mostly because of COVID-related illness or quarantine. But the district found subs for just 16 of those empty teaching positions and 13 of the 75 missing staff in other positions.

Bittman said those numbers are a big reason the district is moving middle and high school students from hybrid to distance learning this month.

“We want our kids in school and we believe the best place for our kids is in school,” he said. “But without adequate staffing and supervision, we have no choice but to react and respond to the increase in confirmed cases and number of individuals quarantined.”

School leaders said they’re hopeful more community members are starting to understand that their decisions about wearing a mask or attending gatherings have a direct impact on whether their local schools stay open.

“It will take everyone working together within all of our communities to navigate this pandemic,” Bittman said. “And the sooner and better we can do that together, the sooner our children will be back in school.”