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Citing the stress and challenges of the pandemic, St. Paul Public Schools is opting to stretch this year's winter break for students to two weeks beginning Dec. 20.

Students initially had been set to be out of class beginning Dec. 22, but the school board agreed Monday to add two non-school days on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21.

Staff members also get a break of sorts by notching a professional development day on Dec. 20 followed by the start of vacation on Dec. 21.

"The district wants to give students, school staff and their families a longer break," a district statement said Monday. "We also encourage everyone to use this time to get vaccinated or get your booster shot if you are eligible."

Superintendent Joe Gothard said that on a Friday this year, the district had 300 licensed teachers absent and was able to fill only about 40% of the slots with substitutes.

Staff is working hard and can use the extra time off, he said.

Gothard said he also is considering adding digital learning days to the calendar beginning in February. Staff and families will be surveyed this month about their preferences on the number of days and which days of the week they'd like to make the shift.

He expects to have findings available for board consideration early next year.