Rochester Public Schools heads back to the classroom after two weeks in distance learning

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Jan. 29—ROCHESTER — Two weeks after going into distance learning, Rochester students are headed back to the classroom on Monday.

The main reason the district went into distance learning was because there were so many staff absences that it became impossible to maintain operations. On Friday, RPS Communications Director Heather Nessler said the administration expects to have enough bodies in the building to resume in-person learning.

"Of course we anticipate some staff absences but we have worked this week to align substitute resources in areas that need support," Nessler said. "Our Human Resources Executive Director, Karl Bakken, runs a report of staff absences by day, and we anticipate being able to cover the absences."

The district went into distance learning Jan. 18 following a large surge in cases of COVID-19. The weekly count of new cases jumped from 31 the week of Dec. 27-Jan. 2 to more than 560 the very next week. The district's weekly dashboard showed a downward trend on Monday, Jan. 24, for the first time since the new year.

On Friday morning, the district had 91 staff absence requests for the upcoming Monday. Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel clarified that that number could increase by the start of in-person learning.

Even with an increase over the weekend, it will most likely be lower than the 369 absences recorded on Jan. 10.

"Even with a level of significant increase over the weekend, we would still be in a good place," Pekel said. "We're going to open."

Multiple authorities in the district drew a distinction between the past two weeks and the previous stretch of distance learning that Rochester students experienced. For one, Dan Kuhlman, president of the Rochester teachers union, said students were told a specific time they would return to the classroom rather than just staying home indefinitely.

"I give credit to our educators," Kuhlman said. "They didn't tell students 'we're at a placeholder.' They said 'we're going home, but you're going to be learning. And we're going to be back in eight days, so be prepared.'"