School board approves six virtual learning days, stipends for district employees

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, December 7, 2021

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The Albert Lea school board on Monday approved two measures in an attempt to alleviate stress and thank Albert Lea Area Schools teachers for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first measure approved plans for one virtual learning day a month to allow teachers more planning time for their classes. 

Superintendent Mike Funk said he is seeing significant staffing issues in the district, including fatigue and burnout. 

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Because of a lack of substitute teachers and more teachers who are absent because of quarantine measures or health-related issues in their families, many teachers are having to cover classes for others during w hat would normally be there planning periods. 

“Our teachers are struggling,” Funk said. “Most employees in the district are struggling to some degree.” 

Rather than add on time to the holiday break, he suggested replacing six Wednesdays for the remainder of the year with virtual days. Students will be given assignments prior to each virtual day. 

All employees will still be required to work on-site those days; however, teachers will be able to use the days to prepare for their classes. 

Elementary school students will have the option of working at home or at their respective schools under district-provided child care provided by paraeducators and educational assistants at no cost to families. Extra paraeducators and educational assistants not needed for the child care will be able to assist teachers in their work. 

Funk said the district sent out an email to all elementary families in the district asking if working families would need child care, and 30 responded they would from Halverson Elementary School, 33 from Hawthorne, 49 from Lakeview and 30 from Sibley. 

Albert Lea High School Principal Chris Dibble said the high school has been most significantly impacted by the staffing issues and brought up the issue of possibly adding an additional three days of virtual learning for high school students. 

Board member Bruce Olson said he has heard concerns about virtual learning days not being successful for learning. 

Board member Jill Marin said she knows some students who would do well in the setting, while for others it would be challenging. She said she is also concerned about the students in the free and reduced lunch population who don’t always have necessary supports in place for them. 

With learning loss that has already happened in some COVID situations, she is worried this will increase the gaps in student groups. She is also worried about the secondary students being unsupervised. 

Board member Kim Nelson said she is concerned about the mental health of teachers as well and this affects their ability to serve students. 

She said she thinks switching to the virtual days is an innovative way to support mental health for the teachers, which will then support students’ mental health. 

Board member Neal Skaar said he was torn, though he appreciated the gesture toward staff. 

“I’m certain they’re hurting,” Skaar said. 

Funk said the district is very close to having to close the high school because of the staffing issues. 

“Folks, I’m telling you as superintendent I’ve never seen the staff more stressed out in my life,” he said. 

Board member Angie Hoffman said she can also see both sides to the issue as she is concerned about learning loss but on the other hand she recognizes that teachers are stressed out.

She questioned if the one day a month would be enough for teachers and asked if there were other ideas as well. 

Funk said the biggest thing he has heard from teachers is they just don’t have enough time to get things done. 

Skaar said he thinks the district needs to make it more attractive financially for substitutes to step forward and made a plea for anyone with the credentials to be a substitute teacher to roll up their sleeves and help. The board earlier in the meeting voted to increase short-term substitute pay to $150 a day.

Marin said anyone with a bachelor’s degree — in any field — can be a substitute. She said while she agrees that something needs to be done to help the teachers, she would prefer the district focus more on getting more people in to help by adding more permanent subs — something she said that would help teachers but also allow students to continue to work. 

The motion ultimately passed 5-2 with Hoffman and Marin voting against.

The virtual learning days will be Dec. 15, Jan. 26, Feb. 16, March 2, April 6 and May 4. 

The board also approved a $500 retention stipend for Albert Lea school district employees — totaling $277,500 — that will be paid for with COVID relief funding. 

Some of the board members questioned whether the money should instead go toward increasing substitute teacher pay.

Jennifer Walsh, executive director of finance and operations, said she thought there should be money in the COVID-19 relief funds to recruit more permanent substitute teachers in addition to the stipend for staff. 

“With a lot of the stresses our folks have been under, this would be a goodwill gesture on the part of the board,” Funk said. 

See more news from the school board meeting here.