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COVID-19 surge forces Rochester Public Schools to go to distance learning

Students aren't the only variable under consideration, though. Of those 564 new cases, 93 were staff members. Superintendent Kent Pekel has said that if the district has too many staff down, it is difficult to maintain core operations.

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Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel prepares for a Rochester School Board meeting Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Rochester Public School's Edison Administration Building in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The Rochester Public Schools has announced it will temporarily move instruction from in-person learning to distance learning Jan. 18-28. The announcement comes amid a surge of COVID-19 cases affecting students and staff.

In the district's most recent weekly report, for the week of Jan. 3-9, the district recorded 564 new cases of COVID-19 among staff and students. Before, the most it had recorded in any given week this school year was 163. Of the 564 new cases, 93 were staff members. Overall, the district has approximately 2,700 staff members.

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Staff availability is the primary reason for the decision, Interim Superintedent Kent Pekel explained in a district-wide email sent late Wednesday.

"My primary reason for taking this step is not (as might have been expected) the spread of COVID-19 among students in our schools, as our most recent data confirms that our efforts to mitigate the number of Rochester Public Schools students who test positive for COVID have been successful," he wrote.

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"The percentages of RPS students who have tested positive for COVID is lower than 10% in all of our schools and lower than 5% in most of our schools despite the significant increase in cases that has occurred in our community due to the spread of the Omicron variant of the virus.

"The impact of the omicron variant on staff absences make it impossible to run our schools and programs safely and effectively amidst the current surge of the virus in our community. Currently, 50% of our school buildings are experiencing significant staff shortages, including teachers,  transportation drivers, school nurses, maintenance staff, and paraprofessionals.

"Our school district team and I considered transitioning only those school buildings with high staff shortages to distance learning rather than all schools in the district, but the likelihood of further increases in the percentages of our staff who are absent due to COVID in our other schools and programs led to the decision to make the shift for the district as a whole."

Up to now, the district has expressed resolve that it would maintain in-person learning as long as possible. On Jan. 10, Pekel spoke briefly to the media about the district's plans.

"We, right now, are going to be continuing to hold to our strategy of not making decisions at the district-wide level about moving to distance learning or shifting programming, but doing it at the classroom, and the grade, and the school level," he said. "(That way) we are moving kids to learning remotely based on actual data at the level of exposure to COVID."

But the same day Pekel made his statement, he sent a letter to families letting them know the district would no longer be able to continue contact tracing. As part of that notice, he mentioned the extent to which COVID-19 has infiltrated the schools.
"Unfortunately, Rochester Public Schools is also no longer able to effectively conduct contact tracing and quarantining students and staff who were near a positive case of COVID but who have not themselves tested positive for COVID and have not shown any of the symptoms of COVID," Pekel wrote in the email.

"Given the current spread of COVID within our schools and community due to the omicron variant, the process of contact tracing and quarantining students is diverting staff time and resources from efforts to identify and isolate actual positive cases of COVID and to manage COVID testing and other critical mitigation strategies."

Pekel said on Monday that if enough staff members became infected, the district wouldn't be able to maintain its core operations. Similar to the notice it sent families about contact tracing, the district also sent a notice about the possibility of bus routes being interrupted.

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"We do reach a point at which maintaining core operations in our schools is also unsustainable," he said. "Right now, we haven't reached that point at any school level, but we're watching it very, very closely."

He expressed optimism that the schools will be able to return to in-person learning after Jan. 28.

"I hope and expect that this transition to distance learning will last only for the two week period that is being announced this evening," Pekel wrote. "Our plan is to return to and remain in-person learning at the conclusion of this period, during which most experts predict we will see the rapid rise and then fall in COVID case rates in our community."

The two-week period is intended to allow any sick students or staff members, and those who have been exposed, to progress to being non-infectious by the time school resumes on Jan. 31.

During the time that schools are operating via distance learning, parents are still expected to report their children's positive cases of COVID-19 to the schools.

School-age child care will be available through the period of Jan. 18-28 at Hoover Elementary School, 369 Elton Hills Drive NW. Remember that the bridge on Elton Hills Drive has been removed and take an alternate route, if needed, to reach Hoover.

Free weekly meal kits will be available for drive-thru pickup from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 19 and 26 at Graham Park Fairgrounds, Building #35.

More information about child care and the meal kits is available in the school district's announcement sent to families.

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Dan Kuhlman, president of the local teachers union Education Minnesota, spoke earlier this week about how the the pandemic is interrupting staffing issues.

Like Pekel, Kuhlman emphasized the fact that it's not just an issue of teachers getting ill, but rather the broader network staff members: food workers, bus drivers, and others. There's also the matter of staff members having children of their own who become ill, which also could affect their work situation.

"It's tough right now for staff. We can't keep up with the number of requests for subbing," Kuhlman said. "We even have administrators at times covering classes. It's hitting hard. It's really hitting hard."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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