A student at St. Paul's Central High School captures the hallways emptying out on Friday as students prepare for a week in online learning. A quarter of all Central students were absent Tuesday, January 18. Credit: Bea Tortorello | Sahan Journal

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On Tuesday, St. Paul students led a walkout from their schools, demanding greater COVID protections, including temporary distance learning and district-supplied KN95 masks.

But the walkout was far from the only reason students missed class that day. Across Minnesota, schools have registered higher numbers of student absences than usual as the Omicron variant surges. Staff absences have reached such high levels that some districts have temporarily shifted to virtual learning.

The student walkout added another voice to the debate about how schools should operate during the Omicron surge. Pundits have insisted that schools must remain open; epidemiologists have questioned whether that’s feasible given staffing shortages; and teachers unions have called for better safety protocols and a say in decision-making. 

Students of color have been more likely to struggle during distance learning than white students. But their families, who are often at higher risk for the virus, have repeatedly placed a higher priority on safety and staying home during the pandemic. 

So we wondered: how many students are actually coming to school right now?

We asked the state’s eight largest school districts to provide student attendance data from one recent day—Tuesday, January 18—to find out. (Elk River School District declined to provide data.)

We found that attendance is down across the board. But some districts are seeing much higher absence rates than others. Urban school districts and diverse suburbs are reporting particularly depressed attendance during the surge. In some of those districts, the switch to temporary online learning has greatly boosted attendance.

Disruptions at a varied pace

Attendance disruptions during the Omicron surge vary widely from one district to another.

In South Washington County Schools, the state’s sixth largest district encompassing parts of Cottage Grove, Newport, St. Paul Park, and Woodbury, about 9 percent of students were absent for any reason Tuesday. That’s up 62 percent from the same time in January 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic.

In Anoka–Hennepin Schools, the state’s largest school district, attendance records from last week were not immediately available. But on January 6, as Omicron cases climbed rapidly, 10 percent of elementary and 12 percent of secondary students were absent. That’s an increase from the late fall, but a slight one: On November 18, as the Delta variant surged, 9 percent of elementary and secondary students were absent.

It’s not unusual for absences to climb in winter, as temperatures fall and viruses circulate. In Osseo, typical pre-pandemic winter attendance is 93 percent. Similarly, in St. Paul, 92 percent of students attended school on the Tuesday after Martin Luther King Day in 2020.

But this January’s absences are higher than usual.

Almost a quarter of all St. Paul Public Schools students were absent Tuesday. The absence rate in Minneapolis, which has temporarily moved classes online, was nearly as high.

For some districts, virtual learning proves an attendance boost

The state’s largest districts that have shifted to online learning—Minneapolis, Osseo, and Rochester—made the switch because of absences among staff, not students. In Osseo Area Schools, for example, staff absences the first week of January were as high as 25 percent before the switch to virtual learning. Kay Villella, the district’s school/community relations director, described the staff absences as “unprecedented.”

Yet these districts have found that temporarily moving their classes online has boosted their student attendance.

Osseo Area Schools, a district of 20,000 students that includes the northwest suburbs of Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Plymouth, and Osseo, announced on January 10 that the district would temporarily switch to online learning. That day, 82 percent of students districtwide came to school. Across the district, schools registered attendance numbers between 68 percent and 92 percent.

After switching to online learning, those numbers went up. On Tuesday, 92 percent of students attended online classes districtwide, nearly matching the typical pre-pandemic winter attendance numbers of 93 percent.

On January 12, before switching to distance learning, 21 percent of Rochester Public Schools students missed in-person class. On Tuesday, the first day of virtual learning, only 8 percent of students were marked absent.

Minneapolis Public Schools registered the highest rate of absences. A third of all students were absent from their in-person classes last Wednesday, January 12. Since the district switched to online learning on January 14, attendance has gone up sharply. Nearly four in five students logged on for virtual classes on Tuesday, January 18.

Taken together, the data present a cloudy and complex picture. While pundits have declared that students must stay in school regardless of the conditions of the virus, in some districts virtual learning is reaching more children during the Omicron surge. 

But it’s difficult to extrapolate from one district to another: In-person attendance in St. Paul remains at comparable levels to virtual attendance in Minneapolis.

How many absences are caused by COVID?

Most districts categorize all absences together, whether they’re for COVID, other illness, dentist visits, transportation issues, etc. Healthy students who stay home for fear of COVID would be marked in the same category.

But a south suburban district may provide clues to the number of students out sick with COVID. Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan Public Schools, home to 29,000 students, tracks the number of COVID cases reported in each school. 

According to district records, 854 students were out sick with a positive COVID test on Tuesday—3 percent of all students enrolled in the district. An additional 800 students were out sick that day who hadn’t reported a positive COVID test to their school nurse. (Given the recent delays in COVID testing, that does not necessarily mean these children do not have COVID. It’s also possible that students do not report all positive COVID test results to their school.) 

Another way of slicing it: 11 percent of district students were absent Tuesday. Half of the absent students called in sick. And half of the students who were sick reported a positive COVID test. Which means about three-quarters of the absent students do not have a known case of COVID.

Regardless, the numbers of COVID-positive students appear to be declining, said Emily Buss, the district’s communications supervisor.

“The number of absent students due to COVID-19 this week have improved from last week, though we do not know if this trend will be stable seeing as this variant is highly contagious,” she said. 

She noted that the district also shortened the isolation period for COVID-positive students last week, which could play a role in the changing numbers. Instead of 10 days, students are now required to isolate for a minimum of five if they do not have symptoms. (Students with symptoms must still isolate for the full 10 days.)

Still, there is reason to believe COVID cases—and school absences that result from them—may be decreasing in the Twin Cities metro area. 

Testing delays make it difficult to untangle current case counts. Still, St. Paul Public Schools is reporting fewer positive COVID cases this week than in either of the past two weeks. Osseo Area Schools plans to resume in-person schooling on January 24, as staff absences have eased.

And in perhaps a more scientific measure, the Metropolitan Council measures the volume of COVID in Twin Cities wastewater. Because this data isn’t subject to problems with testing and samples the entire metro area, it provides a broad and relatively up-to-date view of our current Omicron situation. Those data show that COVID in the Twin Cities area has been in decline since January 10.

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