A St. Paul school walkout organizer calls for COVID-19 safety measures

a student speaks at a press conference
On Tuesday, Jerome Treadwell, 17, organizer with MN Teen Activists and senior at Highland Park High School, speaks during a press conference ahead of a walkout planned at several St. Paul public schools, calling for student safety and support measures as COVID-19 cases surge.
Nicole Neri for MPR News

Tuesday afternoon, a number of St. Paul high school and middle school students walked out of class. They say that the city’s public school district is not doing enough to keep them safe as COVID-19 case numbers spike due to the rapid spread of omicron.

Organizers are demanding the district immediately move to distance learning for two weeks, and to use that time to implement a set of demands the students believe will make in-person learning safer. If the district does not meet their demands, organizers say they will continue to walk out.

The student group MN Teen Activists played a key role in organizing the walkout. Jerome Treadwell is senior at Highland Park Senior High School and a leader of MN Teen Activists.

Speaking to host Cathy Wurzer, Treadwell said student demands include N95-grade masks for staff and students, a full 10-day isolation period or negative tests for people who contract COVID-19, two weekly antigen or PCR tests for staff and one for students, robust contact tracing and a metric the district can use to determine when schools should go to distance learning again.

In the meantime, student organizers are calling for a temporary return to distance learning. For some students, in-person classes provide critical resources they don’t have at home, Treadwell said, but students should not be in schools until key safety measures are put in place.

Recently, Treadwell said the district has seen high absences and a lack of school transportation and substitute teachers due to the latest wave of the pandemic. He says the majority of St. Paul public school students are people of color and that the pandemic has laid bare racial inequities in public health.

“It seems that the [St. Paul] district is attempting to risk students’ lives for the sake of remaining open,” Treadwell said. “We should prioritize public health over anything else.”

In a statement, the district said it offers weekly COVID-19 tests for all staff and take-home tests for students. The district plans to make medical-grade and N95 masks available to staff and students, among other measures.

The district also released a staffing metric it said will determine if schools move to virtual learning: “If on any day, a school has 25% or more of their classroom teachers absent, families will receive a notice from the school. If this absence rate is projected to continue for more than 3 days, families will be notified about a temporary shift to virtual learning.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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