BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — On Friday, Oak Grove Elementary school in Bloomington was quiet. Wind whipped the state and U.S. flag back and forth, and the clanging of the rings that held the flags against the flag pole could be heard loudly.
A white and red COVID-19 notice board blocked the front door of Oak Grove Elementary. The same sign also blocked the ways to the main school district building, as well as Oak Grove Middle School.
"We had a series of COVID cases and whenever you bring back students, whether in hybrid or traditional model, you will see an uptick everyone is experiencing that," Bloomington Public Schools Executive Director of Community Relations and the district's COVID-19 response coordinator Rick Kaufman said. "Unfortunately, we had a significant outbreak in our transportation department."
Kaufman said the department of bus drivers and bus aides currently has nine positive cases, and about 12 others in quarantine.
"We can't serve our students' families when we are impacted to that degree," he added.
Kaufman said the school district had been excited to welcome their youngest learners back for in-person instruction. He said they had contingency plans written, modeled after Flu plans from 2011. However, he emphasized that they couldn't make a game plan for every scenario. This time, the outbreak hit the transportation department. It's something they've dealt with before, but not to this degree.
"We have experienced COVID outbreaks that have hit our transportation department," he said. "We've been able to backfill with drivers, move some of the transportation...but it's significant now enough that we don't have the backup."
Kaufman said with Minnesota having experienced a near decade-long bus driver shortage, contracting out the work was also not an option.
"We do contract some of our transportation for special education and homeless students across the Metro, but all of them are experiencing the same kind of bus driver shortages as well," he said.
As for reaction from parents, he said he's gotten a mix of both.
"We have a variety of parents that support the decision and those that are upset," he said. "The chaos, the uncertainty, to have any normal sense of calendar or schedule if you will is extremely difficult. To those starts and stops, everyone is experiencing COVID fatigue. I don't want to minimize the disappointments, we feel it, we want to honor it."
But for the sake of safety of students, families and staff--and for the sake of equity-- a quick decision had to be made.
"We know that there are children that can be transported to school right now by their parents," Kaufman said. "We know there's a large group of students that do not have that access. So it's not fair, and frankly it's against the law to have school for some and not for others."
Kaufman said with 70 percent of their students relying on the district's transportation for school, the two week pause was for the best.
"It was the best decision we had in front of us," Kaufman said. "But it is disappointing. It's disappointing for our students, families and our staff members. Truly."
Kaufman said they are closely monitoring the COVID outbreak and hoping to return for in-person instruction on February 12th.