More Twin Cities area schools are moving to distance learning after outbreaks of COVID-19 spurred high numbers of student absences and staffing shortages.
St. Paul Public Schools also posted on its website a survey for parents and staff members that could lead to as many as five digital learning days being carved out later this year, while its teachers union pushed for more immediate changes in pandemic protocols.
Districts opting to shift from in-person to virtual learning included Prior Lake-Savage, Osseo, Farmington and Richfield — with Richfield students set to go remote on Wednesday.
"We are not able to provide transportation or in-person instruction in a safe and high-quality manner at this time," Richfield Superintendent Steven Unowsky said in a statement.
Junior high and high school students in Osseo began taking classes at home Tuesday with elementary school students making the change starting Wednesday.
"With schools having as high as 25% of their staff members out, it is not possible to sustain ordinary, in-person operations for the short term," the district said.
Plans call for all Osseo students to return to in-person learning Jan. 24. High school co-curricular athletics and after-school activities will continue during distance learning.
In Prior Lake, the district said 632 students were reported absent from Jan. 3 to Jan. 10 due to a positive COVID-19 test or were in quarantine due to direct exposure to COVID-19 in their household. More than 12% of staff members were out sick Monday.
Students will learn at home from Thursday through Jan. 18. Athletics, activities and events will continue as scheduled, Prior Lake-Savage Superintendent Teri Staloch said.
The districts joined others moving to remote learning.
On Monday, Fridley shifted students to "blended learning," citing a considerable increase in COVID cases affecting the ability to staff schools and provide transportation.
In Robbinsdale, Sandburg Middle School and Armstrong High School shifted to distance learning through Jan. 17. Other schools in the district remained in person.
St. Paul is considering sprinkling in digital learning days through the remainder of the school year in recognition of the stresses and challenges created by the pandemic.
The shift from in-person instruction to virtual learning would occur on Mondays and/or Fridays and would not be added to existing holidays or breaks, according to a survey now being taken this week by parents and staff members.
The survey allows respondents to cite concerns related to child care, work schedule disruptions and the possibility of children not having meals available at home.
Superintendent Joe Gothard signaled a survey was coming when the school board voted in November to add two days to winter break. He said then he was mindful of long stretches of time during which educators and students had no time off from school.
The digital learning days would fall between Feb. 1 and May 31.
Also Tuesday, the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) called upon the district to develop a more comprehensive approach to the surge of COVID-19 cases connected with the highly contagious omicron variant.
The union wants the district to work with SPFE on a metric to temporarily shift individual schools to remote learning when issues arise around transportation, staff and substitute availability, and COVID-19 cases at the schools.
"The current situation is unsustainable," Leah VanDassor, the union's president, said in a statement. "We don't have enough bus drivers to get children to and from school. Many staff are out sick, quarantining or caring for loved ones, and there aren't enough substitutes to fill in."
SPFE also wants the district to increase availability of PCR tests for students and staff, continue with contact tracing and maintain 10-day isolation periods for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or require two negative antigen tests to return to school sooner.
Last week, the district put families on alert that they would have to find ways to get their children to and from school when bus routes are canceled.
Release of the survey and the union's statement come a week before the St. Paul school board's next monthly meeting on Tuesday.