More than 100 community education staff members at Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools have lost work because of coronavirus-related revenue losses, the district announced in a letter to staff Monday.

Community education includes the district’s Early Childhood Family Education, youth and adult programs and Kids Company. Superintendent Teri Staloch told district staff most employees in the department would no longer be scheduled to work.

“Due to COVID-19, combined with the fact that the state has provided no indication that there will be funding relief for fee-based programs, we are unable to pay CE staff to continue offering support and programs during this time,” Staloch wrote.

“This decision has nothing to do with your value as employees, and we hope we can get to the routine business of providing education and services to our district soon,” she added in another message. “We sincerely appreciate all your efforts during this incredibly difficult time.”

Prior Lake-Savage Education Association President Shawn Beaudette said the reductions affected 165 people and would continue through the end of April, at which point the district will re-evaluate the situation.

Community Education positions are paid for separately from other teaching and district staff, primarily with program fees and some local government money for preschool screening and school readiness programs, Executive Director of Business Services Julie Cink said.

When Walz announced he was closing down Minnesota schools for in-person instruction, he said teachers and staff should be kept on the payroll and that districts would continue offering child care to first responders and other workers without fees.

The Minnesota Department of Education in March wrote in messages to districts that community education programs aren’t required in distance learning plans and that the state wouldn’t reimburse some fee-based programs.

Community education staff for several weeks have worked to adapt their positions. Early Childhood Education teachers last week launched an online curriculum with some of the district’s youngest students, and Kids Company staff provided child care at WestWood and Edgewood elementary schools.

Cink wrote in an email Thursday that the district “does not consider this a furlough or a layoff.” The staff remain district employees, she said, “but due to the lack of funding, there were no work hours available.”

No goodbye

Community education members said the hardest part was the abrupt end of contact with students after they’ve tried to establish a routine for younger students who might not understand why they can’t see their teacher or friends.

“I miss my kids, I miss my families, I miss everybody,” Rochelle Barrett, an early childhood teacher at Edgewood, said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. It makes me sad to not be working with them.”

She said she’s been working with 75 families through the transition to distance learning and had been impressed by how well her students were doing with the change. Now she won’t check in, read them a book or sing one of her signature songs. She wished she could have given a proper goodbye.

“I would have made sure to tell them this is temporary, and we’ll see them as soon as we possibly can,” Barrett said.

Parents of children in the Circle of Friends Preschool and other classes turned to Facebook to share videos of students wishing their teachers well and letting them know they missed them.

“I really appreciate it,” Barrett said. “It makes me feel wanted and like I do matter.”

At least one parent began a GoFundMe page to support one of the community education teachers out of work.

Beaudette said that media support staff, peer coaches, deans of students and other support staff have been told that they will be brought in on a rotation to care for the 60 to 100 children of first responders and other essential workers the district has been caring for now that Kids Company staff are unable to.

He said those new responsibilities will be on top of some of the work staff like the peer coaches were already doing to help teachers plan and organize their distance teaching.

Tight finances

The district was looking to reduce spending or make other changes before the pandemic arrived. Officials announced earlier this year they were looking to fill a $3 million gap between expected revenue and costs.

“Up to this point, the district has not received any additional funding and is only relying on current funding for the additional costs to provide technology and distance learning,” Cink wrote. “We continue to monitor the district’s finances as we learn more about any legislative changes that may occur this session regarding funding for COVID-19.”

The change to work hours doesn’t require School Board action, Chairwoman Lee Shimek said, adding, “Administrators reviewed budget implications and worked with legal counsel” before making their decision and notifying the board.

Staff members said they have unanswered questions about their situation as well as the status of their benefits. Beaudette and Barrett said they’ve both been told that staff benefits and health care will continue at least through the end of April.

Barrett said she will file for unemployment while she’s not being scheduled to work. Her eldest daughter is a day care teacher and told her about the process recently after getting laid off.

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