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Forest Lake Area Middle School students returned to in-person learning on the first day of the school year in September. Columbus Elementary School recently returned to a mask recommendation following a spike in COVID-19 cases. 

Higher illness rates are the cause 

The Forest Lake Area School Board approved a substitute teacher proposal from Superintendent Steve Massey on Thursday, Oct. 7, which offered 11 substitute teacher positions for the whole district through the end of 2021-2022 school year. 

“They would be, essentially, dedicated subs that would be, not permanently assigned to a building, they would be assigned to a building but also be available to work elsewhere in the district,” Massey said at the October meeting. 

The proposal would be funded by ESSER, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, to pay substitute teachers $180 per day. 

It was approved by a 4-0 vote, with board member Jill Olson absent and members Alex Keto and Kate Luthner abstaining because they are substitute teachers in the district. 

Even with this approved proposal, Massey said the teacher and substitute shortages are still evident at the school district this school year during the Thursday, Nov. 4, school board meeting. 

“It’s extremely challenging for the system. To make the system work with that level of absence, we need more subs,” he said. 

The district has had up to five unfilled classrooms on any given day and has utilized literacy coaches, academic support and media staff, music teachers and physical education teachers to fill the classrooms on the days with high teacher absences. He said it is straining on the faculty. 

“I don’t know how we’ve done it, but we’ve kept our buildings open,” he said.

The goal of the school district is to keep students in person at school, which it has accomplished thus far, but Massey said students are missing out on parts of their education without their usual teachers, who have been getting sick and have to remain home, instead of running their classrooms. 

“Kids aren’t getting those experiences because the teachers aren’t coming to class. But the good news is we stay open,” he said regarding the teachers and faculty who have stepped up to fill the gaps. 

He thanked the staff who have stepped up, and asked community members with substitute teacher experience and qualifications to reach out to the district to help. 

Massey added that the current shortages are related to unplanned staff absences, in spite of filling the 11 substitute teacher positions that the proposal in October offered. 

COVID-related illnesses, along with other illnesses, are playing a role in the current teacher shortage at the school district.

“We’re still in it and we’re waiting for that downward trend to take hold and really work its way to a more normal level. We think that’s going to happen, but we’re still at our higher levels,” Massey said. According to Massey, the secondary schools in the district had 14 confirmed staff and student cases and 15 staff and student cases at the elementary level as of the week ending Friday, Oct. 29.

According to the school district’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard, there are 29 confirmed student and staff cases at the elementary level and 9 confirmed cases at the secondary level as of the week ending Friday, Nov. 5, after the school board meeting took place.

“COVID hasn’t gone away. You might argue or consider that cases could be far worse, and I would agree. But any case is a concern,” Massey said. 

He added that Columbus Elementary will return to a mask recommendation this week following the spike in cases that resulted in a 10-day mask mandate. 

The school district is still utilizing the COVID-19 mitigation strategies that were approved at the beginning of the school year. The strategy recommends masks, vaccines and maintaining good hygiene. 

“Our staff know that we are not in a position to push, promote or encourage kids to get vaccinated,” Massey added, saying it is a family’s choice to get their children vaccinated or not. 

However, he explained with the expansion of ages that can receive the vaccine, ages 5-11, the district is working with the state and county to make school sites available for people who want to get vaccinated. The school sites will not be a school program nor mandatory. 

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