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This year was supposed to be different. Back in the summer, when the initial rounds of vaccination drove COVID-19 case rates vanishingly low, parents, teachers, and school leaders dared to hope that this would be the first school year since 2018–2019 without pandemic interruptions.

But COVID cases kept climbing all fall, driven by the Delta variant. A shortage of substitute teachers and support staff meant many classroom teachers spent their prep hours covering for absent colleagues. In November, Education Minnesota, the state’s largest union of educators, declared this school year the most stressful teachers had encountered in their careers. 

The stresses of the pandemic have weighed particularly heavily on teachers of color. A RAND Corporation report last winter found that a quarter of teachers overall, and nearly half of Black teachers, were considering leaving their jobs at the end of the year. The report recommended that districts hire additional staff, implement COVID-19 mitigation measures like improved ventilation, and develop clear policies for remote teaching to help retain teachers.

And now: Omicron. 

In the first two weeks of 2022, some Twin Cities districts reported hundreds of daily teacher absences. Some classes were sent to the media center or auditorium because schools had no teacher to cover them. Buses stopped coming. In some schools, more than half the students stayed home without a remote learning option.

Over the past week, many districts have quickly changed plans. Minneapolis Public Schools announced a virtual learning day Monday, January 10, on account of cold and COVID cases; by Wednesday, the district announced it would shift into online learning for two weeks, beginning January 14. Unlike previous versions of distance learning, students will still be able to come into school buildings for remote learning, if they choose. That option could provide relief for parents who can’t keep their kids at home.

“We’ve reached our tipping point,” said superintendent Ed Graff in a virtual press conference. “And so as much as we did not want to move to this space, this is where we are.” In each of the past two days, more than 400 teachers were absent, about twice as many as usual, he said; more than half of those assignments went unfilled by substitute teachers or other coverage plans. 

So we asked Minnesota teachers of color: What does school look like for you in the Omicron surge?

Their frank and conflicted answers show a chaotic moment through educators’ eyes.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.