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What the widespread shift to distance learning means for Minnesota schools’ support staff

The Minnesota Department of Education has said the expectation is that districts find a way to keep staff on payroll, which in many cases means reassigning people.

As more and more students and staff get sidelined, either because they test positive, or need to quarantine, school leaders are dialing back in-person instruction ahead of the holidays.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

As COVID-19 counts continue to climb across the state, a growing number of school districts are announcing plans to shift to distance learning.

Many had made the decision to begin the school year with some degree of in-person instruction, often with more in-person instruction for elementary students, and secondary students following some type of hybrid schedule. But as more and more students and staff get sidelined, either because they test positive, or need to quarantine, school leaders are dialing back in-person instruction ahead of the holidays. And while some are publicizing tentative return dates for in-person learning, many are leaving this next phase of the school year open-ended.

In the transition to distance learning, teachers will continue to prepare lessons and teach virtually. Less clear is what the mid-year transition means for many of the paraprofessionals who work one-on-one with special education students, the staff who provide hot meals on-site and the drivers who bus students to school each day.

All hands on deck

The Minnesota Department of Education issued guidance following the statewide shift to distance learning last spring, setting the expectation that districts find a way to keep all staff on payroll. In many cases, that means reassigning staff. “Every model will have its own difficulties. And we assume there will be roles for everybody to play,” said Wendy Hatch, a spokesperson for the department. ”[It’s about] making sure all the expertise we have at a school, for students and their learning — whether that’s academically or nutritionally or otherwise — that that expertise is still being utilized, no matter which learning model we’re in.”

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The task of re-shuffle support staff becomes obvious pretty quickly in a smaller district, where budget cuts from years past have already led to a reduction in the number of team members.

In the Cambridge-Isanti Schools, located about an hour north of the Twin Cities, Superintendent Nate Rudolph says $3 million in cuts last year that followed $4.5 million in cuts the year prior has meant fewer staff, both licensed and non-licensed.  “There’s just less to go around,” he said. “There’s lots of opportunity for leadership these days. Lots of needs.”

Nate Rudolph
Nate Rudolph
In response to fast-growing community infection rates, his district recently shifted all grade levels to distance learning for a three-week period. to “We will see if we can bring numbers down,” he said on Monday. “I know that definitely seems like an uphill battle. It’s appealing to everyone in our community to stay home when they can, and practice social distancing, and practice those precautions.”

During this period, instructional assistants are continuing to provide on-site childcare services for essential employees. They’re also finding ways to support students virtually. And for those who find their daily demands no longer fill an entire workday, Rudolph says his team has identified a number of projects for them to tackle — things like centralized record keeping, sanitization tasks and other tasks to boost the district’s efficiency. School support staff have one other critical role to play: preparing paper assignments and learning materials for students lacking devices and a reliable internet connection. Staff members print and bundle materials, and bus drivers deliver the packets to students’ homes.

In anticipation of distance learning, Rudolph says his district ordered enough devices in July to assign one to every student. They were told those devices would arrive in time for the start of the school year. But due to a national shortage, he says that the delivery date has been pushed back at least four times so far.

“All Chromebooks being on backorder has forced us to think differently,” he said. “We’re working to make sure every family has access to a device, so we can accomplish some things.”

Reimagining roles, tough decisions

In the Shakopee Public Schools, this Friday marks the last day of in-person instruction for elementary students. And by Nov. 30, all students will have transitioned from a hybrid mode to a distance learning model. The goal is to bring everyone back, in a hybrid format, as soon as possible, says Superintendent Mike Redmond. But it’s too early to set a date.

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“I don’t really think there’s any chance they’ll be back before the first of the year,” he said in an interview Friday. “We’d need the new lower numbers to stabilize. To do that we need at least a couple weeks time.”

In pivoting to distance learning, he says district administrators have been considering the feedback from students and families that opted to begin the year in the district’s distance-only option, which accounted for 24 percent of the district’s students,  grades K-12. Based on that feedback, he says paraprofessionals will be doubling down on efforts to check in with students more frequently.

Mike Redmond
Mike Redmond
These virtual check-ins will focus both on helping students organize and connect with resources, and on supporting students’ social-emotional learning and mental health.

“It gives us another way of trying to keep those relationships — trying to keep them strong during distance learning,” Redmond said.

Redmond says he and his team are still working out plans to hold some individualized or small group on-site learning for students who need face-to-face services, particularly special education support. Some paraprofessionals probably will be reassigned to support expanding on-site childcare services as well.

For the time being, high school activities and athletics will continue, as will community education offerings. But as case numbers rise, “that grows more and more tenuous,” Redmond said. Last spring, his district ended up furloughing some community education team members because that revenue stream had been completely upended by the pandemic.

Despite efforts to include all staff in a distance learning plan, he says food services has emerged as a particularly challenging area. In a hybrid model, there’s a greater need for on-site employees. But food pick-up or delivery requires fewer employees, so he says the district is considering furloughs or reducing hours.

‘To me, these are decisions we never make lightly,” he said. “We’re in the service business  — which means our expenditures are predominantly on people. But when we simply aren’t providing services and aren’t generating the revenue that goes with those services, we have no choice but to reduce the number of persons in those service categories.”

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More on-site needs

In the Anoka-Hennepin district, secondary students transitioned from hybrid to distance learning on Nov. 4. Elementary students are scheduled to continue in-person learning through the end of this week, then transition to distance learning as well.

Superintendent David Law says that some of the paraprofessionals in his district have already been reassigned to staff on-site childcare programs for essential workers. Those who’ve been supervising recess and filling other on-site needs during hybrid learning may be offered an on-site childcare position for the time being, but that all depends on how the demand for childcare shakes out in the next couple of weeks.

David Law
David Law
If the district can make those alternative assignments but staff members turn them down,  the district will be looking at making layoffs, Law said. Community education staff are also out of a job if classes get canceled due to rising infection rates. And food services employees probably are looking at reduced hours ahead. Heading into a period of distance learning with no guaranteed date to return to hybrid learning, the district recently trimmed back on clerical staff as well.

Since the bulk of the district’s paraprofessionals are directly assigned to work with students who have specialized learning or behavior needs, this segment of support staff members have a more clearcut role to play. They’ll be listening in on virtual classes, following up with their student directly, and perhaps still delivering some level of in-person support.

Law says he’d actually like to expand this level of personalized support to about 10 percent of general education students who are struggling most, so they don’t fall further behind during distance learning. He and his team are looking at ways to bring small pods of students on-site, so a paraprofessional can help them with their schoolwork and keep them on track. They’d prioritize seniors who aren’t currently on track to graduate and those who are behind on credits, Law said.

“We’re targeting people who are academically needy,” Law said. “But our sites are open. And if a parent is saying, ‘My child is really struggling with his mental health,’ we’re trying to find ways to support that too.”