Minneapolis Public Schools will go virtual for two weeks due to a "significant reduction" in school staff available to work because of COVID-19, district officials said Wednesday afternoon.
Students will begin learning virtually on Friday and return to classrooms Jan. 31.
In-person after-school programs will go on hiatus during the break while varsity athletics practices will continue as planned. Junior varsity, b-squad and middle school sports have been canceled.
The announcement came a day after officials in the Osseo, Prior Lake and Richfield districts said they would move toward remote learning. Rochester and Shakopee schools announced on Wednesday a move to distance learning from Jan. 18-28.
The cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis also announced that they will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in bars and restaurants to help curb a surge in coronavirus infections.
St. Paul Public Schools, which is surveying parents and staff members about the possibility of carving out digital learning days later this school year, had nothing new to report Wednesday about any move to distance learning.
Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff said district officials made the call to go virtual after about 400 teachers called in Tuesday and Wednesday. That's about double what the district anticipates during the winter and did not include support staff — custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others — who called in this week.
Educators called in for a number of reasons. Some were out sick or quarantining. Others were taking care of family members who had contracted COVID, Graff said.
Minneapolis schools could fill only about 45% of those absences, Graff said. He did not specify how many educators were out at each school.
Principals had support staff and other administrators fill in for some teachers who were absent. In some buildings, teachers taught two classes at once.
By Wednesday afternoon, Graff said, district officials had run out of options.
"We've reached our tipping point," he said. "As much as we did not want to move to this space, here we are."
Schools will attempt to replicate their in-person schedules during virtual learning for the district's roughly 29,500 students. But that sort of consistency, along with support for students with acute needs, will depend on staffing levels at each school.
"We are really trying to create the same type of schedule for our learners, for our staff," Graff said.
The Minneapolis teachers union said in a Wednesday night news conference that the district decision came without the union's input.
Greta Callahan, president of the teachers chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said having all staff on-site for online learning is "profoundly senseless" without an option to teach from home to prevent COVID-spread and be with their own children in remote learning. Callahan also worried that students will be in front of computers all day with few breaks and no opportunity for one-on-one time with teachers or peers.
"This new online plan was not co-created with those who will be implementing it," Callahan said. Next week, the union's board will consider taking the next step toward a strike authorization vote, she said.
Families whose children can't stay home to learn can send students to a school building, but those lessons will still happen virtually. Graff said the district had to offer this option so it wouldn't run afoul of instructional hour requirements as set by state law.
"The decision to move to online learning is a difficult one. It's one we do not take lightly."
District officials have asked families to fill out a survey to help leaders plan for how many students to expect for on-site virtual learning. Schools will serve meals to those students and provide to-go lunches for families whose children learn from home to pick up.
Staff writers Anthony Lonetree and Mara Klecker contributed to this report.