For Minnesotans, Walz’s school plan brings more questions than answers

A bottle of hand sanitizer sits in a classroom.
A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on a cart as Des Moines Public Schools custodian Tracy Harris cleans a chair in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School in July. In Minnesota, with little more than guidance from the state government for how to handle the upcoming school year, many families remain in limbo for how their lives will look in a month. 
Charlie Neibergall | AP Photo file

Updated: 6:19 p.m.

Dee Dee, a metro-area high school nurse, is at a loss. Her son is enrolled in pre-K for the upcoming school year, and she badly wants him to be able to get the education, enrichment and social interaction that school offers. 

“I have a 4-year-old that I’d love to have in school,” she said. “But I can’t do that right now. It’s going to be a lot more damaging for him in the long run to have a teacher die.” 

Dee Dee, who requested MPR News keep her last name and employer private for fear of repercussions at work, knows the risks well. 

Before the pandemic, she’d see 75 to 100 students in her office every day. Dee Dee said she hasn’t received any guidance from her school district on what she should do when some of those students show signs of the coronavirus. 

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“I don’t know how to isolate those kids from anyone who has COVID symptoms,” she said. 

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Plus, she said her office can’t get all the supplies it needs, including hand sanitizer. Then, there’s the question of what happens when school staff get COVID-19. 

“If somebody tests positive, say, in the kitchen staff, they’ll likely have to isolate everyone who works in that kitchen,” Dee Dee said. “Who’s going to feed the kids for two weeks?”

For Dee Dee and countless other families and school workers across the state, Gov. Tim Walz’s plan for the upcoming school year has brought more questions than answers. MPR News took calls for three hours on Friday morning, the day after Walz said each school district will be able to decide whether it’ll open its buildings, do distance learning, or some combination of the two. 

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A day after his announcement, Walz reiterated that the state guidance puts a priority on keeping students and teachers healthy.

"We'll be taking temperatures. We'll be making sure that there's health screenings going on. Should a child show up we will try and remove them. We will do the epidemiological contact tracing to see who came in contact with that student,” the governor told All Things Considered host Tom Crann on Friday.

While some expressed optimism that the governor’s plan could work, it didn’t offer solace for many Minnesotans. 

Gov. Walz announces plans for Minnesota schools for 2020-21 school year.
Gov. Tim Walz takes part in a news conference to announce the learning plan for Minnesota schools for the upcoming 2020-21 school year at TPT's St. Paul, Minn., studio Thursday..
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP

“I was up all night last night just kind of racking my brain for what we’re going to do,” said Anne Halvorson, a parent in St. Paul.

Halvorson said she lost her job, as have tens of thousands of other Minnesotans amid the coronavirus pandemic. The uncertainty of what’ll happen with her child’s schooling come fall is making the search for a new job even more difficult. 

“I feel like I'm sort of in limbo, not able to talk to employers about whether I can actually go into work or not, or if I need to stay home with my daughter because she’s distance learning,” Halvorson said. 

She noted that St. Paul schools and the state have differing recommendations for what the district should do, making her wonder if there could’ve planned better: “What have St. Paul schools been doing for the last month to not be able to announce what’s happening with some clarity upon the announcement of Gov. Walz’s direction?”

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Some teachers are seeking more clarity, too, as they learn to educate in new, ever-changing ways. 

Paul Peltier, a music teacher in the rural northwestern Minnesota town of Fosston, said he and his coworkers did the best they could when schools transitioned to distance learning last spring.

It was like “retooling the plane while we were flying it. … I felt like a first-time teacher” when using Google Classroom for the first time, he said, adding stress to the job. 

On top of the technical issues with distance learning, Peltier said, online school has amplified inequalities including food insecurity, homelessness and poverty. He said the kids who need school for the supports it provides were at a disadvantage. 

“I had one band kid who said, ‘I know that my stepdad doesn’t like the sound of my instrument and we’re probably going to get kicked out of our house because we struggle with chronic homelessness, so I don’t know if I can be in your class anymore,’” Peltier recalled. 

He responded by telling the student, “You need to take a break until all this cools off and then we’re gonna come back to this.”

Peltier said he appreciated Walz’s guidance for its data-driven approach. He said teaching in a rural area like Fosston looks “fundamentally different” from the metro because of its lower population density and the sheer size of his district, which means it’ll need a different response to pandemic-time schooling. 

With so many variables with the upcoming school year, Peltier noted something all of us could remember in the long road ahead: “We just need flexibility and compassion.”

What do the state’s guidelines mean to you and your family? What are you planning on doing this fall? Share your thoughts with us