When they return to classes after the long Thanksgiving weekend, nearly all students in Minnesota’s largest school districts — and many in smaller ones — will be logging on from home.
Rising COVID-19 case numbers and staffing shortages that pushed many schools into distance learning earlier this month have also caught up with the last few large districts that had hoped to keep their doors open, at least for hybrid instruction. On Nov. 30, elementary students in South Washington County, White Bear Lake and Prior Lake-Savage schools will move into distance learning, following earlier shifts by middle and high schools in those districts. All Wayzata schools will also move to distance learning that day, as will those in Mankato.
Minnetonka Public Schools, the last large district to move students online, will have all grade levels in distance learning starting Dec. 2.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said that while some districts haven’t specified a target date for bringing students back to school buildings, most district leaders agree that it won’t be until sometime in the new year.
“Some have indicated that they’re thinking they won’t be back until the later part of January, or early February,” he said.
The shift isn’t unique to Minnesota. As virus cases have surged across the country, school districts have careened in and out of distance learning, with many buildings closing their doors as the Thanksgiving holiday approached. Districts from Philadelphia to Topeka, Kan., to San Diego abruptly shelved plans to bring students back for in-person instruction. New York City public schools moved online last week, just eight weeks after bringing students back to classrooms.
With cases on the rise in nearly every corner of the country, and fears of holiday-related spikes ahead, school leaders have increasingly been talking about plans for 2021 rather than this year.
Duluth Public Schools told parents this week that students will remain in distance learning at least until the end of the first semester, which wraps up Jan. 21. Other districts said they’ll assess next month whether it might be safe to bring students back after winter break, in early January.
“We will continue to monitor all of the factors that will play into the decision — from community and district spread/case count to staffing needs and challenges — among other factors,” said JacQueline Getty, spokeswoman for Minnetonka Public Schools. “We will decide in mid-December whether e-learning will continue beyond January 4.”
Julie Nielsen, superintendent of South Washington County Schools, said her district was forced into distance learning by staffing shortages that made in-person learning impossible. The district made the call after a week in which so many staff members were ill or in quarantine that there were not enough bus drivers, school nutrition workers, substitute teachers or substitute educational aides to keep buildings open.
The problem, Nielsen said, wasn’t that the virus was widely spreading inside schools. Staff and students were primarily picking up COVID-19 or being exposed to the virus elsewhere in the community. Nielsen said that’s the trend that will have to change, likely over a period of several weeks, before it will be feasible to bring students back.
“We’d like to see some trend data that shows numbers are dropping,” she said, “and what that drop number is may be different than what sent us out to distance learning.”
She said school leaders hope they can return to hybrid instruction in early January, but it is too soon to say how much the virus will be spreading after weeks of holiday celebrations.
“We obviously want kids back in school after the winter break, but that depends on what the holidays show us in terms of actions,” she said.
Croonquist, with the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said school leaders are hopeful that the state will issue more specific guidance about how schools should determine when they can return to hybrid or in-person instruction after they’ve spent time in distance learning. He said there’s also widespread interest in more clarity about how the shifts into different learning models should affect sports and other school activities.