Update: MPS is Moving to Online Learning until January 31, 2022

On Wednesday afternoon, MPS announced it will be moving to online learning starting Friday, January 14, 2022, and returning to the classroom on Monday, January 31, 2022. As part of online learning, students may report to buildings but may not necessarily have their assigned teachers or classrooms depending on which staff are available. Instruction will be provided online to students who choose to remain at home as well as students in buildings. Bus service and meals will continue to be provided for students who come into buildings. For students learning at home, bagged breakfast and lunch can be picked up at schools each day. This model is consistent with Minnesota Department of Education regulations for online learning this school year that requires the online learning program to be optional, as well as to continue to provide meals to students who choose the online option.

The Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Board of Education (Board) met on Tuesday night for its annual organizational meeting and a regular business meeting. The evening began with the assignment of board members to committees for the 2022 calendar year, and a recognition of the outgoing student representative to the board, Mary Ghebremeskal. 

Public comments focus on Superintendent’s contract and teachers union negotiations

There were public comments shared by voicemail as well as in-person. A majority of the commenters were affiliated with the Racial Justice Network, which is led by Nekima Levy-Armstrong, whose members have been coming to meetings to ask that the district limit the renewal of Superintendent Ed Graff’s contract to a one year probationary period, subject to specific academic outcomes for students. 

In addition, several commenters mentioned the ongoing district negotiations with the teachers union, and asked that an agreement be reached to retain teachers of color in the district outside of the current seniority-based contract language in the event that there are reductions in staffing. This is a time-sensitive request because the district begins its budgeting and hiring process in February.

COVID and Staffing Shortages

Superintendent Graff gave an update on the impact that COVID is having on the district. There was a long discussion between the Superintendent and board members about the current state of the district and the challenges that it is facing. Superintendent Graff reiterated the district’s commitment to maintain in-person instruction for students as much as possible, as long as the district can safely staff its buildings. 

While that is the goal, the staffing challenges that the district has faced all school year have been exacerbated by the most recent wave of COVID. In his comments, Superintendent Graff shared that before classes resumed, there were 282 cases of COVID reported to the district (It is unclear if this was just staff or includes students). On Tuesday January 11, 2022, 400 licensed teachers were absent, 80% of which were due to their own illness or the illness of a family member. Utilizing substitutes, having other teachers cover classes during their prep periods, combining classes, and deploying central office staff, the district was able to cover between 70-90% of these absences, depending on the building. These metrics don’t include ESPs or paraprofessionals that were also absent. 

He discussed the strain this is having on teachers, other staff members and principals, telling the board “I’m not sure how much longer we will be able to hold on.” He also acknowledged the fear and anxiety that students and families are having about being in school, as well as the challenges students face accessing instruction remotely when they are in quarantine.

In addition to absences of teachers, the district transportation office has several key staff members absent who handle the dispatching and routing of school buses. Throughout the school year, the district has had difficulty maintaining enough drivers to meet the transportation needs of students. The district staff has been able to temporarily reroute and reschedule buses and drivers in many cases to address these challenges. But the absences of these staff with a unique skill set means the district is not currently able to make the types of changes in the moment that it has been making throughout the school year to optimize routes and schedules. This a major reason for the district moving to e-learning for one day on Monday, January 10, 2022.

Board Director Ira Jourdain shared many comments he has received from parents and students who are afraid to return to school buildings because of social anxiety and fear of becoming infected with COVID. He noted that the online option the district offered to families during the enrollment period for this school year is full and has a waitlist. He has had families tell him that they will not send their students back into the school building for the rest of this school year. He asked about the possibility of an online option and what impact the disruptions to staffing are having on student learning, and about what mental health supports the district can provide for students who are worried about being infected with COVID.

In response to Director Jourdain, Superintendent Graff noted the mitigation steps that the district is taking: masks are required; staff are required to be either vaccinate or tested weekly; the district is isolating students who test positive for 10 days; the district is contact tracing exposures within buildings and quarantining exposed students and staff who are not vaccinated; the district has made upgrades to its HVAC systems and filtration where possible, including using portable HEPA filters where HVAC filters could not be upgraded. Public health staff that consult with the district have told them they are taking appropriate mitigation steps, and that COVID infections are happening primarily in the community but not inside of school buildings. Currently the district is providing COVID testing for unvaccinated staff and unvaccinated student athletes consistent with resolutions passed by the board to require vaccination or weekly testing for these groups.

Online learning discussion

With respect to shifting to online school for a longer period of time, Superintendent Graff said that the district is no longer allowed to move to distance learning in the way that it did in the 2020-2021 school year because those regulations expired with the Governor’s emergency powers. Online learning this year would require the district to continue to provide an in-person option for students, along with meals and transportation.

When asked for clarification on what options are available to the district to offer distance learning under current regulations, MPS provided the following statement:

“It’s really important to note that neither Minneapolis Public Schools nor any district in Minnesota has the authority to move to an exclusively online model without providing some in-person option for those who want it. And more accurately, what the law is written as is stating that the online model should actually be the option, not the in-person model. The ‘distance learning’ model that was previously in place last year was done so under the Governor’s emergency executive order, which has ended. In the interim, the legislature did not amend the law to allow for distance learning as we knew it in school last year. So the Minnesota Department of Education has granted districts as much authority as it can to provide online learning, but again, that online component must be with an in-person option. If a school or the district were to move temporarily to online learning, we anticipate that the in-person support would largely be supervision for online instruction a student would be receiving from their own teacher, because we would not likely have enough staff to provide both online and in-person instruction, even though we might have staff continue to report in-person to support those students who show up. This is generally what you see a few other districts doing now, when their staffing levels don’t allow them to operate fully in an in-person way.”

We also asked the Minnesota Department of Education to clarify the regulations that cover districts this year for online learning. MDE confirmed that MPS is a fully licensed online provider and may offer an online learning option this year, either as a stand-alone school, which MPS has already done, or as a temporary response to COVID. Online learning must remain optional (meaning students can still come into the buildings for supervised online instruction), however, per MDE regulations for 2021-2022 school year. In addition, schools must provide meals and transportation for students who choose to come into buildings, and they must provide meals for students who choose the online option.

The district will meet later this week with its Regional Support Team that advises the district on COVID mitigation practices to consider the CDC’s updated guidance on isolation and quarantine, possibly shortening the length to five days. The district is currently operating under the previous CDC guidelines that require a minimum of ten days of quarantine after a positive test, or exposure for individuals who are unvaccinated. Superintendent Graff noted that a shorter quarantine and isolation period may alleviate some of the staffing challenges the district is currently facing when staff have recovered from illness but must continue to remain in quarantine.

Board Chair Ellison asked about families who are keeping students out of school right now because of fear of COVID, especially those families who are unvaccinated and ineligible young children or immunocompromised family members. She noted the state law that stipulates students should be unenrolled from a school if they have 15 days of absences for purposes of state funding to schools. Superintendent Graff responded that he was not sure what options are currently available for the district to address this issue.

School Calendar for Next 3 Years

The next agenda item for the meeting was a presentation and discussion of the school calendar for academic years 2022-23, 2023-24 and 2024-25. The district designs the calendar to meet a combination of state regulations, contractual obligations with its staff, the needs of students, and family preferences. The district is required to provide 170 days of school for secondary students, which is more than is required for elementary and kindergarten. To meet the academic needs of students, the district maintains a two week break at the end of December and a one week break before the fourth quarter; during these breaks the district offers credit recovery programs for high school students who need these opportunities in order to graduate on time. In addition, the Academic Division has asked the district to move professional development days for staff from the beginning of the school year into the middle of the school year; its preference is for these days to happen in the middle of each quarter instead of at the end of each quarter.

The district received feedback from its parent advisory committees (PACs) on the proposed calendar options. In Scenario 3, the district would add “non contact’ days to correspond to the significant religious holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kipur, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha. The administration is also supportive of these days as non-contact days because there are typically a significant number of student absences on these days, which makes it difficult for teachers to introduce new material and catch students up after their absences. In addition, the PACs expressed a desire for students to be in-person as much as possible, while also having as many shortened school weeks as possible.

Directors Arneson, Pauly, Caprini and Chair Ellison expressed support for Scenario 3, which would include five additional non-contact days during the school year, a loss of one day of instruction compared to continuing the current calendar structure, and move the professional development days into the school year instead of at the beginning. For the 2022-2023 school year, this scenario would shift the last day of school to Thursday, June 15, 2023, whereas under scenario 1 that maintains the current calendar structure, the last day of school would be Friday, June 9, 2023.

Director Jourdain expressed a desire to maintain the current calendar structure, noting that some buildings in the district do not have air conditioning. He also stated his belief that many families like to start their summer vacations earlier, and was concerned that students who participate in summer school would miss out on many traditional summer activities because these would end before summer school is over.

The board will vote to approve one of the four proposed options at its next meeting, Tuesday, February 8, 2022. The calendars under consideration are linked here.

Following the calendar discussion, the board spent time voting on its legislative agenda, the consent agenda and renewing the contract for its transportation staff before the meeting was adjourned.