Minnesota school districts are tacking on extra days to winter break this year in an effort to curb teacher stress and address ongoing staff shortages that include teachers, paraprofessionals, cooks and bus drivers.
But as calendars change for teachers and students, some parents have struggled to find child care options on short notice. Others are worried about more lost instruction days when kids are already behind.
"It's become too easy to give away school days," said Shawn Kopnick, the parent of a Prior Lake-Savage third-grader. "There's less fortunate kids whose parents aren't home all day — what do they do? Where do they go?"
Districts including Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Prior Lake-Savage and Sartell-St. Stephen in central Minnesota added one day, while Duluth, Anoka-Hennepin and St. Paul added two days. Osseo and St. Cloud extended their breaks by three days.
Three districts scheduled teacher planning days or professional development on the days off.
"The picture that was being painted was of just a high level of fatigue and stress … and it was reaching a peak," said Tracy Bowe, executive director of human resources for the St. Cloud district.
COVID-19 infection rates have been trending upward in St. Cloud, and that was a consideration, Bowe said. Staff and student absences were also increasing, she said.
Bowe said there was "great relief in the system" when the change was announced. Most administrators said they've received mostly positive feedback, though some fielded negative calls.
"I absolutely understand the concern on the part of families," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers' union. "If the district is doing this kind of short notice, it can put people in a bind."
The changed schedules are an acknowledgement of staff stress, she said, adding that some schools had so many missing staff members that they struggled to provide "meaningful" education.
But when winter break is through, teachers, paraprofessionals and custodians will return to the same system, Specht said.
She predicted some staff will quit throughout the year, and said more creativity with the calendar — an early-release day here, a repurposed teacher workshop day there — will offer a "good short-term solution" to what is expected to be a lingering problem.
Several districts have already added new days off for students throughout the winter and spring so teachers can plan or have professional development.
Staff shortages abound
In the state's largest district, the scope of the staff shortage is profound. Even if everybody showed up to work at Anoka-Hennepin Schools, there are still about 250 open positions this year, said Superintendent David Law.
On an average Friday three years ago, the district had 20 classrooms in which the teacher was absent and no substitute could be found. Now, there are 120 to 140 classrooms for which there's no substitute available on Fridays, Law said.
The district knew the Wednesday before winter break would be a high absence day, Law said, adding that it made sense to acknowledge that and have the day off. Anoka-Hennepin also added Jan. 3 to its winter break.
Duluth students saw two extra break days added — Dec. 22 and Jan. 3 — with Superintendent John Magas citing "sub failure" and the domino effect it creates when other staff have to lose their prep hour to cover classes with no teacher. Magas said mental health and behavior challenges with students were another factor.
"Our staff is pretty exhausted after 18 months of COVID education," he said. "Every day is something new, right? …. It's been quite a stretch for folks."
Prior Lake-Savage has its own shortages of custodians, child nutrition staff and paraprofessionals, along with teachers, said Kristi Mussman, spokeswoman for the district, which added Dec. 22 as a break day.
Bus routes have so far had enough drivers, though there have been "close calls," Mussman said.
In the Forest Lake district, transportation issues have taken center stage as a lack of bus drivers — due to illness and other factors — led the district to switch to distance learning beginning Dec. 16 and extending through Dec. 23, when winter break started.
Tim Johnson, the parent of a Forest Lake kindergartner, said the district "literally gave us 12 hours notice" of the change.
"There are families that were panicking," he said.
Johnson said his family's schedule allows for someone to be home with his daughter to manage online learning, though he prefers in-person school.
He said he hopes to see the hourly wage for bus drivers raised so the shortage ends.
The child care conundrum
Most school officials said the response they've received since changing their schedules has been largely positive.
Tony Taschner, spokesperson for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, said the district got some pushback after making Dec. 23 a winter break day.
"We understand that, and that's why we say we want them in school whenever possible," he said. "We think they learn better in person."
Parents should have a back-up plan for such days, Taschner said, while acknowledging that sometimes plans fall through. The district's School-Aged Care program offered childcare services Dec. 23, but only to regularly enrolled families, Taschner said.
Several officials said district-sponsored programming for the new days off was open only to kids already signed up.
In Prior Lake-Savage, Kids' Company was closed on the added vacation day. Duluth had several child care options available, while in St. Cloud, families in a bind could call the Boys and Girls Club to ask about openings.
St. Paul Public Schools parent Whitney Cantrell said her kids attend a city-run program called S'more Fun for scheduled no-school days. But she said the program is too expensive for the added days, since families had to pay extra for them.
On those days, she set up a childcare arrangement with another family — one day they watched her kids, and vice versa the other day.
Cantrell, a teacher in another district, said she had mixed reactions to the announcement of two more break days.
"My first thought was, 'Wow, that is a really caring community,'" she said. "I was really impressed with the call."
But the district said the change was intended to acknowledge the stresses that students and families are facing, too, and Cantrell wondered if that was true.
"I questioned, 'Are they really doing this for families?' " she said.