MN's schools closed for learning, but open for emergency personnel child care, planning

A woman sits at two laptops video conferencing.
Instructional coach Jen Schwartz video chats with other coaches and teachers from inside of Webster Elementary in North St. Paul Wednesday. Schwartz helps teachers develop techniques and lesson plans to ensure students are learning while not in school.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Last Friday, Gov. Tim Walz told schools to keep their doors open. He said they were needed to care for the children of people who worked in health care.

Two days later the plan changed.

“We have thought this through and I will be willing to say at this time that we have the most comprehensive plan for what school closing looks like of any state in the nation,” Walz said.

Minnesota’s plan means canceling classes for a week and a half to give teachers and district leaders the time to prepare for distance learning.

4 women sit in an elementary classroom.
Four instructional coaches use laptops to video chat with teachers figuring out how to teach remotely inside of Webster Elementary in North St. Paul Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But while classes are canceled, Walz is calling on districts to leave their doors open for the children of health care and emergency workers.

“My challenge or my charge to this group was can we do both?” he said Sunday, “Could we simultaneously ensure the safety of those children, their well-being, their nutritional needs and provide the care necessary for the first responders in the health care system?”

Before the governor finished, many parents’ phones buzzed with email, texts and call alerts from their districts about school closure plans. The districts would offer emergency and health care employees child care for children in grades K-5.

Christine Osorio is superintendent of a suburban district serving more than 10,000 students in North St. Paul. She’s helped Walz’s team think through how Minnesota’s schools can be used during the pandemic.

“That’s been quite a scramble to get that (child care) organized,” she said.

Osorio said her district is tapping staff from before- and after-school programs to start running child care programs for essential personnel. They may begin to rotate in paraprofessionals, educational assistants, behavior specialists and teachers who don’t have their own classes as people begin to get sick.

Other staff in Osorio’s district this week are setting up food and technology distribution for students. They’re coming up with bus routes and pickup centers to get students what they need. They’re also asking janitors to deep clean their facilities.

A man wipes the inside of a windshield.
Bus driver Charlie Clowes cleans the windshield of his school bus in North St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News

“We are happy to say that our Tartan (High School) pantry is now empty and ALL food and hygiene items are in the hands of our 622 students and families,” she said.

While her district gears up for what may be months of distance learning, Osorio told her staff the main focus is health care workers, as well as the teachers and cafeteria workers who are taking care of their children.

“One thing I’ve really been working on with my broader team is how do we prop everybody up and support those on the front lines who are going to be the ones really facing the public, working with our communities,” Osorio said.

Early this week Osorio’s district had only 120 students of health care and essential personnel signed up for child care. Only 24 showed up for the first day. But the superintendent said she expects those numbers to grow as more information gets out.

Ben Levy’s family may soon feel the strain responding to the pandemic. He’s a resident in radiology at the University of Minnesota and a flight surgeon for the Minnesota Air National Guard. Levy’s wife works in health care as a geriatrician.

They have a 3-year-old son and another child due in early April.

“If this goes on longer, at some point you can’t worry about patient care and your family at the same time,” Levy said. “There’s not enough mental bandwidth.”

Levy’s son’s day care is closed, despite requests from state leaders to keep day care centers open.

Right now Levy and his wife depend upon their parents for child care. But he worries his parents will get sick.

Hundreds of laptops sit on tables.
Hundreds of laptops prepared for students sit in the media center of North High School.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Angel Scott, a chaplain at a Good Samaritan Society senior living facility, has twins, age 5, in early learning programs in the Richfield school district. She’s also wary of what caring for her kids might mean for their grandmother.

“Because they’re little kids and little petri dishes I just don’t want them, you know, being in contact with people they could end up giving something to,” she said.

Scott plans to send her kids to the Richfield district’s child care center so she can serve seniors as long as she can.

Walz said his intentions for schools, education and learning during a pandemic are flexible.

“What I asked my team to do is come up with a plan to do this that hasn’t been done before,” Walz said, “If people thought it was going to be the doors were all locked and no one’s there, it’s more complex.”