Cracking the 'giant jigsaw puzzle': Minnesota schools scale back reopening plans

Children are getting their body temperatures checked.
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, teachers check students before a summer STEM camp at Wylie High School in Wylie, Texas.
LM Otero | AP Photo

Updated: Aug. 25, 10:53 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 24, 1:33 p.m.

Dozens of teachers gathered outside Eisenhower Elementary School and the district offices in Hopkins last week, eliciting some honks of approval from cars passing by on Highway 7. The teachers waved signs reading “Educator lives are more important than child care,” and “Safety first. Distance learning will not kill us, but COVID can.” 

Keenan Jones, a fourth grade teacher, said he has been rattled by some of the missteps schools around the country have made as a result of trying to reopen too soon. He doesn’t want his district to make the same mistake. 

"We're talking about Notre Dame, one of the top universities, wealthiest universities in the country, and they're having to shut down. So let's just do this in a way where it's effective and everybody is safe. Right now I think distance learning is the safest thing. Every day, there's more and more questions than there are answers,” Jones said. 

Teachers with Hopkins Public Schools hold a rally
Teachers with Hopkins Public Schools hold a rally on Thursday to express concerns about reopening classrooms under the district's hybrid approach of both distance learning and in-person instruction.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

Hopkins is just one of the many Minnesota districts that are having to re-craft, walk back or change their reopening plans based on rising COVID-19 case rates, budget constraints and pushback from both teachers and parents. 

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Other districts, like Roseville, Bloomington and Mounds View had planned to open with at least some in-person learning this fall. But in recent days they’ve walked those plans back, telling families that they will only offer distance learning. 

Roseville Public Schools communications director, Josh Collins, said the district changed their plans to distance learning out of “concerns for the health and safety of students, families and staff.” 

Both families and staff gave Roseville school leaders unexpected feedback. Forty percent of families said they wouldn’t participate in in-person learning, even if offered by the district. And about 75 percent of teachers in the district said they didn’t feel safe or were medically unable to return to in-person work, Collins said

“We have heard from some families that constant uncertainty is difficult, so knowing that this is the plan for at least the first month of school may bring some comfort to those who are trying to plan,” Collins wrote in an email to MPR News. 

In Hopkins, the district has worked to involve an array of voices in the planning, with various task forces and surveys seeking input from teachers, students and their families. But sometimes those perspectives are at odds with one another. 

The district initially planned to send some of its youngest learners back to the classroom for 4.5 hours during in-person instruction, but recently expanded it to a full 6.5-hour school day after hearing an “overwhelming outcry” from parents, said superintendent Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed. While teachers wanted those extra hours to prepare for distance learning, many parents were concerned that they couldn’t find childcare with the school days ending so early.  

Vanessa Walters, a special education teacher at Gatewood Elementary School, said many educators don’t feel safe returning to the classroom — and yet their options are limited.

“Teachers have the option of taking a leave, but they don’t want to,” she said. “They love their kids, they want to be there. I don’t know what will happen. We want schools to open, we want them to stay open, so that means we have to be smart about it, and that includes using teacher input.” 

Still, Hopkins administrators remain confident they’ve found the right staffing mix to go forward with their hybrid approach after an initial start with distance learning. The official school year begins August 31, about a week before most districts return. 

Hybrid is the most popular choice for metro-area districts. According to a recent survey from the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, over half of the organization’s 46 members had announced plans to start the academic year in some sort of in-person hybrid scenario. The second most popular choice was distance learning, with 17 districts announcing plans to start the academic year remotely. 

‘Hugely challenging’

But Scott Croonquist, the association’s executive director, says those plans are highly subject to change. 

“It’s really like putting a giant jigsaw puzzle together and as you’re putting it together, you’re finding out that there’s pieces missing or pieces just aren’t going together like they’re supposed to go together. So it’s hugely challenging,” Croonquist said. 

One puzzle piece that is highly subject to change is local COVID-19 case rates. Every Thursday the state department of health releases 14-day rates by county. According to Croonquist, even though Gov. Tim Walz and his administration has told school leaders to only use the data as a starting off point for determining what districts do, it’s become the foundation for districts. 

“Everyone is looking at it, the parents, community members are aware that it’s a key data point,” Croonquist said. “It’s hard to deviate from that data point because it’s become so prominent.” 

Meanwhile, a coalition of teachers of color in the Anoka-Hennepin School District is raising concerns about equity as schools ramp up for opening this fall.

Schools may open in a hybrid setting. But teachers say the district's decision wasn't based on an inclusive process. Families of color have concerns about contracting COVID-19 and recovering from it.

Kaia Hirt is a member of the Anoka-Hennepin Teachers of Color Coalition, which is made up of 80 teachers. Hurt said a survey that the district put out was only available in English, making it less accessible to English language learners. She also raised concerns about how much the district sought the input of students of color, who make up 42 percent of the student population.

“Not only is it unfair for those families to try to navigate the situation, it also isn't giving the district a complete picture of what our families want,” Hirt said.

The coalition plans to hold a rally Monday evening to address those equity concerns. For its part, district officials say they’ve recently started sending messages in both English and Spanish and are trying to improve access to families of color and those who do not speak English.

“District leaders are scheduling a meeting with leadership from the union, the teachers of color coalition, and county epidemiologists to better understand the county-level data that drives decisions,” said Anoka-Hennepin spokesperson Jim Skelly. “It is our plan to work collectively with this group to address any communication concerns with our families after we analyze the data.”

Metro-area districts are not the only ones having to re-work their plans. Maccray public schools in western central Minnesota had planned to start their schools in full-time in-person learning but had to switch to a hybrid version of learning after COVID-19 case rates rose in their county. 

In Minneota Public Schools, also in a western central part of the state, district leaders delayed the start of their school year to Sept. 1 “out of an abundance of caution” after learning a staff member had contracted COVID-19. 

Bob Indihar, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said he expects to see many more districts change their plans as time goes on. 

“It’s gonna be common. People are going to start in one mode and they’re going to have to quickly pivot to another mode, and that’s where a lot of the anxiety is coming from this year,” Indihar said. “People are preparing as best they can and using the data that they’ve got, but the data can change — and when that data changes, they have to change their mode.”

MPR News reporter Riham Feshir and editor Laura Yuen contributed to this report.

Correction (Aug. 25, 2020): A previous version of the story included the incorrect percentage of students of color enrolled at the Anoka-Hennepin School District.