Schools Add Vacation Days to Relieve Teacher Stress and Staff Shortages
Minnesota school districts are planning extra days before winter break this year in an effort to reduce teacher stress and address ongoing staff shortages including teachers, paraprofessionals, cooks and bus drivers .
But as timetables change for teachers and students, some parents are struggling to find short-term childcare options. Others worry about more education days lost when kids are already late.
“It just got too easy to donate school days,” said Shawn Kopnick, the parent of a third-grader from Prior Lake-Savage. “There are less fortunate children whose parents are not at home all day – what do they do? Where are they going ? “
The 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 have extended their breaks by three days.
Three districts have scheduled teacher planning or professional development days during the days off.
“The picture that was being painted was just a high level of fatigue and stress… and it was peaking,” said Tracy Bowe, executive director of human resources for the St. Cloud District.
COVID-19 infection rates have trended upward in St. Cloud, and that was a consideration, Bowe said. Staff and student absences have also increased, she said.
Bowe said there was “a great relief in the system” when the change was announced. Most admins said they received mostly positive feedback, although some responded to negative calls.
“I fully understand the concern of families,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers’ union. “If the district gives that kind of notice, it can put people in a bind. “
The changed schedules are a recognition of staff stress, she said, adding that some schools had so many missing staff that they struggled to provide “meaningful” education.
But when the winter break ends, teachers, paraprofessionals and caretakers will revert to the same system, Specht said.
She predicted some staff would resign throughout the year and said more creativity with the schedule – an early exit day here, a workshop day for teachers reassigned there – will offer a “good short-term solution” to what should be a persistent problem. problem.
Several districts have already added new days off for students throughout the winter and spring so teachers can plan or track professional development.
Staff shortages abound
In the state’s largest district, the magnitude of the staff shortage is profound. Even though everyone showed up to work at Anoka-Hennepin Schools, there are still around 250 positions open this year, Superintendent David Law said.
Three years ago, on average, on Fridays, the district had 20 classrooms in which the teacher was absent and no replacement could be found. Now there are 120 to 140 classrooms for which there is no substitute available on Fridays, Law said.
The district knew that the Wednesday before winter break would be a high day of absence, Law said, adding that it made sense to acknowledge it and take the day off. Anoka-Hennepin also added January 3 to her winter break.
Duluth students saw two extra days of break added – Dec. 22 and Jan. 3 – with Superintendent John Magas citing a ‘secondary failure’ and the domino effect it creates when other staff have to lose their preparation hour to cover lessons without a teacher. Magazines said mental health and behavioral issues with the students were another factor.
“Our staff are pretty exhausted after 18 months of COVID education,” he said. “Every day is something new, isn’t it? … It was quite difficult for people. “
Prior Lake-Savage has its own shortages of babysitters, child nutrition staff and paraprofessionals, as well as teachers, said Kristi Mussman, a district spokesperson, who added Dec. 22 as the day off.
Bus lines have so far had enough drivers, although there have been “close calls,” Mussman said.
In the Forest Lake District, transportation issues took center stage as the shortage of bus drivers – due to illness and other factors – led the district to shift to distance education at from December 16 until December 23, when the winter holidays have started.
Tim Johnson, the parent of a Kindergarten child in Forest Lake, said the district “literally gave us 12 hours’ notice” of the change.
“There are families who were panicking,” he said.
Johnson said his family’s schedule allows someone to be at home with their daughter to manage online learning, although he prefers school in person.
He said he hoped to see bus drivers’ hourly wages increase so that the shortage would end.
The Conundrum of Child Care
Most school officials said the response they received since changing their schedules has been overwhelmingly positive.
Tony Taschner, spokesperson for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, said the district suffered some setback after making Dec. 23 a winter day off.
“We understand that, and that’s why we say we want them in school as much as possible,” he said. “We think they learn best in person.”
Parents should have a back-up plan for those days, Taschner said, while acknowledging that sometimes plans fail. The district’s School-Aged Care program offered child care services on Dec. 23, but only to regularly enrolled families, Taschner said.
Several officials said district-sponsored programming for the new days off was only open to children already enrolled.
At Prior Lake-Savage, Kids’ Company was closed on the extra vacation day. Duluth had several childcare options available, while in St. Cloud struggling families could call the Boys and Girls Club to inquire about openings.
Whitney Cantrell, a parent of St. Paul’s public schools, said her children are participating in a city-run program called S’more Fun for non-school days. But she said the program was too expensive for the extra days because families had to pay extra for them.
Those days she set up a babysitting arrangement with another family – one day they babysat, and vice versa the other day.
Cantrell, a teacher from another district, said she had mixed reactions to the announcement of two more days of recess.
“My first thought was, ‘Wow, this is a really caring community,'” she said. “I was really impressed with the call.”
But the district said the change was meant to recognize the stress students and families also face, and Cantrell questioned whether that was true.
“I asked, ‘Are they really doing this for families? ” ” she said.