Schools face challenges in teaching students in quarantine

·4 min read

About two weeks into the school year, Caroline Hood got a pair of dreaded e-mails from Kenny Community School in Minneapolis: Both her kindergartner and her first-grader had been exposed to COVID-19, triggering a 14-day quarantine required by Minneapolis Public Schools.

"I kind of lost my mind," Hood said. "It's really frustrating."

The start of school this fall amid a rise in COVID-19 cases has brought fresh challenges for families and educators trying to keep students from falling behind academically as they cycle in and out of quarantine. Districts' policies for how long students must isolate after a COVID exposure vary, and so do the approaches to keeping them plugged into schoolwork.

Distance learning, a default option for many districts last year, isn't offered in many districts this fall. So the burden often falls on parents — many of them also scrambling for child care — or individual teachers who make packets of school work to send home with students or arrange online activities students can access on their own.

"Having this now be the third academic year impacted by COVID is just unimaginable," said Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union. "We again have to talk about what's working and not working for the students and the educators."

In St. Paul, teachers are encouraged to use a "blended learning" model, meaning the students in the classroom and in quarantine complete the same independent assignments on their iPad.

"That started off shaky, but we're learning," said John Bjoraker, principal of St. Paul's Farnsworth Aerospace School's PreK-4 campus. He recently held a training with the staff about how to better prepare for student quarantines and communicate with families. "We're really stressing that the purpose is that students maintain that connectedness to their class. We want to provide as many opportunities to participate in that same schoolwork as possible."

Requiring teachers to simultaneously instruct in-person students and students in distance learning — as some schools did last year — exhausted teachers and disrupted learning for all the students, Specht said. "That's one thing that districts are agreeing on."

Despite the influx of pandemic-related funding that school districts have received, they still face extreme staffing shortages. That means the answer isn't as simple as finding someone to teach quarantined students online under a distance learning model, she said.

"Unfortunately there just aren't a lot of good options right now," she said.

Determining when and for how long students need to quarantine is left up to individual districts, creating a hodgepodge of protocols across the state.

Some districts, like Minneapolis, are having all unvaccinated close contacts quarantine for a full two weeks. Others set that time frame to seven or 10 days or, in the case of Anoka-Hennepin schools, require quarantining only for unvaccinated siblings of students who test positive for COVID.

School districts that don't have state-approved online school programs can use up to 20 days of online instruction this year.

"But that doesn't mean they are able to use it, said Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. "Many districts just don't have the staff to be able to offer that online option."

Some districts that are running online schools may be able to temporarily move quarantining students to distance learning, Croonquist said, but others — like Minneapolis — run those schools as a separate program, not a distance learning option for students enrolled in-person.

"In those cases, it's looking at the old-school method of sending home packets and lessons that students can work through at home," Croonquist said.

That's proving easier for schools that provide iPads or laptops for students, who can then access assignments online, Croonquist said. Still, most of those students aren't receiving live instruction.

Hood's oldest son's entire first-grade class was sent home, so he's been receiving some live, online instruction. Her kindergartner, whose class was not all quarantined, received worksheets and a code to log into an app with activities.

"His class is continuing on without him," she said.

Hood has been supplementing his worksheets with other resources she's found, but said she knows that's a privilege other families may not have, as is having family to help with child care.

Hood has started a petition to ask the Minneapolis schools to scale back the length of quarantine for close contacts who test negative, as her children have.

Minneapolis schools are "always examining and adjusting" protocols based on guidance from health experts and district leaders, said Julie Schultz Brown, the district spokeswoman.

In Mankato, schools are using online learning systems to get lessons to quarantining middle and high schoolers, who have school-provided devices.

"It's not the same at being in school, obviously," said Travis Olson, director of teaching and learning for Mankato Area Public Schools. "But it's not designed to be an online school."

While teachers are doing what they can to keep at-home students engaged, "there just isn't a way to replicate" the hands-on learning and social benefits of in-person learning, he said.

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440