The Potluck

Minnesota teachers’ union urges school districts to delay first day of school, stick to distance learning

By: - September 1, 2020 2:30 pm

Eden Prairie resident Sarah Sirek works on distance learning assignments while her private autism school is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mom Melissa Sirek said Sarah works best with her Barbie dolls learning alongside her. Courtesy of Melissa Sirek

Education Minnesota, the union representing more than 80,000 teachers statewide, urged school districts at a press conference Tuesday to delay the first day of school and address potential safety and equity issues before resuming in-person classes.

A week before most districts’ first day of school, teachers and union leadership cited concerns about unclear safety protocols, challenges for at-risk teachers seeking work-from-home accommodations, racial equity issues and fears about resuming in-person classes while COVID-19 cases continue to grow rapidly in Minnesota.

Minnesota school districts’ fall plans are guided by county-level COVID-19 data and their abilities to implement safety measures. They’re given some leeway in deciding whether to reopen with full-time, in-person classes; a mix of in-person and distance learning; or full-time distance learning.

Recently, some of the state’s largest districts have pushed back their start date from the day after Labor Day to mid-September, and others made last-minute switches to distance learning after planning to start with in-person classes.

Education Minnesota hopes more districts will do the same.

“Reopening the buildings in a politicized pandemic and national racial reckoning is the most difficult thing any of us in education have ever done. If it takes more time, fine — take the time,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota.

Experts agree that there’s no way to completely eliminate the chance of students or teachers getting sick with COVID-19 at school. Several medical groups — including the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine — still recommend reopening schools, if it’s possible to do so safely, because keeping schools closed could have harmful effects on students’ learning and well-being.

Distance learning is especially challenging for low-income students, students learning English and students with disabilities, raising concerns that more remote instruction could worsen educational disparities. By some estimates, the average student may have lost seven months of learning by the end of 2020. For low-income students, the loss will be closer to a full year. Plus, thousands of Minnesota students still don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet, which is essential for distance learning.

Still, some experts and Minnesota educators wonder if schools are prepared to execute the complicated reopening plans necessary to keep students and staff safe.  

Music teacher Marty Fridgen said there was confusion about COVID-19 reporting protocols in South Washington County last week after a teacher tested positive for COVID-19 during back-to-school workshops. The teacher reported it to the district, as required by their coronavirus safety plan, and became worried when the administration didn’t respond, Fridgen said.

The teacher told colleagues who were at the workshop about the test result, as well as the local union, Fridgen said. The union found that the district’s policy didn’t require them to notify anyone about the case.

“At a time when people are so nervous about their safety and those around them, this confusion is not acceptable,” Fridgen said. “All districts need to make protocols around reporting a priority.”

While families can choose to keep students home for distance learning even if their schools resume in-person classes, educators don’t have as much flexibility. Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order states that districts and charter schools have to allow high-risk staff and staff who live with high-risk people to work from home to the “extent possible,” and districts’ accommodations have varied, according to Education Minnesota.

Sarah Haavisto, a kindergarten teacher in Two Harbors, which is starting the year with a mix of distance learning and in-person classes, said she requested in early August to work from home because her 16-month-old daughter’s health complications put her at risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

The school district didn’t respond for several weeks, and the request wasn’t approved until Monday, Haavisto said — less than two weeks before the first day of school.

“As I breathed a sigh of relief, I realized the enormity of being the only grade-level teacher working as a distance learning teacher,” she said. “Instead of sharing the responsibilities (for creating lesson plans and activities) with my team, I will be creating everything on my own.”

Maria Higueros-Canny, who teaches English language learners at a Brooklyn Park elementary school, said her district has recently made progress toward recognizing the needs of families of color and multilingual families, but she still has concerns about racial inequities and the data used to determine school reopening plans.

The district initially planned to start with hybrid learning and recently decided to start at least the first two weeks with distance learning, Higueros-Canny said. Back-to-school planning has been confusing for families that speak languages other than English because district communications are often published in English first, then translated later or sometimes never translated at all, she said.

Higueros-Canny also said that the state’s plan to use county-level data to determine whether districts can resume in-person classes doesn’t account for high case rates in some cities. For example, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center are both home to proportionally larger Black, Indigenous and communities of color than Hennepin County, and both have more COVID-19 cases per capita than Hennepin County, she said.

“It is not equitable to look at only Hennepin County data when our communities of color are affected at such high levels,” she said. “Every district has the option to follow a more conservative return-to-school plan, if they feel it is in the best interest of their students and staff. We urge them to take it.”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.