Staff shortage at Twin Cities schools pushes some summer classes online

Breanna Baker’s 7-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, loves the routine that comes with a school day. Baker does too — sending him off to class allows her to focus on her work. That’s one of the reasons she was excited about Extended School Year, a summer program for Minneapolis Public Schools students who receive special education services.

But just weeks before the classes were supposed to start, she got the news: The bulk of that program was moving online because the district doesn’t have enough licensed special education teachers.

“This is really damaging not only for the kids with special needs but for families who depend on this option because they don’t have child care,” said Baker, who opted to pull her son out of the program.

The staffing shortages that plagued schools during the academic year, forcing them to scramble and sometimes shift to distance learning, are continuing this summer. Twin Cities metro-area school districts eager to help kids catch up from lost learning during the pandemic are adjusting programming and using a variety of tactics — including bonuses and aggressive recruiting — to make summer classes work.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, said after such a challenging school year, many teachers needed a break.

“This year, of all years, people ended the year and said, ‘I’m done,’ ” Specht said. For some, that means they are leaving teaching altogether, and for others — even those who normally teach summer courses — it meant they needed a break from the classroom.

“The conditions are ripe for the continuation of staffing shortages,” she said. “Fall is going to come and we’re going to look around and say, ‘Where is everyone?’ but it should be no surprise.”

In Minneapolis, about 3,900 students are enrolled in summer academies. That number does not include the 675 students in the district’s Extended School Year, about two-thirds of whom were moved to online learning.

A letter to families said that “due to significant staffing shortages across all ages and grades, MPS had to make the very difficult decision” to move the program’s services online. The students most affected, the letter said, are students with higher needs who spend the majority of their school day receiving special education services.

“MPS cannot place people in positions without the training, experience and licensure required,” the letter read. “Not enough teachers have applied for our summer services jobs.”

Increased pay and recruiting

St. Paul Public Schools’ summer programs are fully staffed with about 1,000 educators, including 650 licensed teachers. That’s a result of what district leaders say was an early hiring process that started in January. Many of the classes include hands-on learning and field trips in the community, which can be a draw not only for students but for educators, said Beth Putnam, assistant director of the district’s office of alternative education.

“Getting all of our programs staffed has come with its challenges, more so this year than other years,” Putnam said. About 50 educators from Teachers on Call, a substitute staffing service, were hired to help fill the gaps, mainly in classes requiring a teacher with a license to teach a specific subject.

In the Anoka-Hennepin district, more than 10% of the roughly 38,000 students signed up for summer courses. More than half of those enrolled are elementary students whose summer sessions will focus on math and literacy.

In older grades, especially high school, summer courses focus on credit recovery and also include a variety of classes, from civics to geography to math, for students learning English as a second language.

“When your high school schedule has multiple periods of language acquisition, you lose some credit opportunities,” Superintendent David Law said.

Osseo Area Schools spokeswoman Kay Villella said the district had “varying levels of success and challenges” in shoring up enrollment in its summer programs, drawing about 1,800 students. The district also had some issues in getting the programs fully staffed, she said.

Tony Taschner, spokesman for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools, said finding adequate summer staff has always been a challenge, but the district increased summer wages last year. Teachers, for example, make $50 per hour in the summer compared with $33 during the school year, he said.

“The increase made a huge difference last summer and continues to be a big factor,” Taschner said.

‘No time to plan’

In Minneapolis, the main challenge was hiring special education teachers. To expand the pool, the district has a residency program with the University of St. Thomas and is developing an internal paid teacher preparation program for special education teachers, but “the fruits of those labors … are in the future,” said district spokeswoman Crystina Lugo-Beach.

For now, Minneapolis parents who had planned on the Extended School Year are left trying to find other options.

Ilham Mohamed said the change has her looking for someone to come to her home to care for her 10-year-old son who has autism.

“My child was not successful doing e-learning during the pandemic, so I do not understand why they feel it will work now,” Mohamed said through a translator. He needs the routine, social interaction and one-on-one attention of being in a physical classroom with a teacher, she said.

“I feel like the district has just passed the problem on to me … with no time to plan,” she said.

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