Twin Cities educators seek assurances for safe return to classroom

A person holding a sign that reads "We demand safe schools"
Kindergarten teacher Madee Weisner (right) stands with other educators, Wednesday during a rally to demand safe and equitable schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 7:09 p.m.

Educators from Minneapolis and St. Paul rallied on Wednesday outdoors near the Mississippi River for what unions representing the two cities’ teachers and staff called, “safe, equitable and sustainable education during the pandemic.”

Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools are among districts currently practicing distance learning and monitoring state COVID-19 data regularly to determine when some students can safely return to school. 

Educators in the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals and the Saint Paul Federation of Educators say the school boards in the Twin Cities should do five things before switching the learning model in their districts from distance learning to hybrid models, which combine in-person and distance learning.

A young boy rests on a woman's lap as they sit with two people outside.
Irene Mineoi (right) sits with her children, 4-year-old Youssef Amrani and 7-year-old Iman Amrani, and sister Maya Mineoi, as Minneapolis and St. Paul educators rally to demand safe and equitable schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Their first written demand is for the districts to publicly negotiate over issues of safety and academic quality in specific schools and worksites. The unions also called on district leaders to lower staffing ratios and resume hazard pay for education support professionals, or ESPs. Other demands were for the districts to advocate for expanding access to high-speed internet, slow the transition to hybrid learning until it can be done safely for all students, and to publicly acknowledge a history of underfunding that has disproportionately negatively affected students of color.

"Right now, many of our families are unable to connect due to lack of interpreters for IT problems and unreliable internet access,” Nick Faber, president of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators, said in a statement. “These are problems we could fix if we made the commitment to tax those who are profiting in this time to pay for them.”  

A person holding a sign that reads "equity in distance learning."
Members of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators march across the Lake Street bridge.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Greta Callahan, president of the teachers chapter of the Minnesota Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals said districts should not rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We want to meet our students where they’re at but we are being placed into a box that is similar to the way things were when we were in-person, yet nothing about this is the same as in-person learning. We need the time and flexibility to meet our students’ needs right now,” Callahan said.

Minneapolis Public Schools responded with a statement saying the district is doing the best it can to meet the academic needs of its students while keeping students and staff safe. 

The statement reads in part, “While MPS does not see the need for formal bargaining at this time, we are committed to continue and deepen our ongoing collaboration and problem-solving around issues related to the COVID 19 pandemic with our union partners. To that end, MPS has multiple regular and ongoing meetings with the MFT and ESP unions in order to ensure they have the latest updates on activities and issues that may impact their members.“

In addition, the district said MPS would ask for feedback on models and plans for how to move the dial in a safe and equitable way.

In St. Paul, district leaders plan to reassess COVID-19 data on Oct. 2.

“I am disappointed that SPFE leadership is in opposition to the return of our students to the classroom,” said superintendent Joe Gothard in a statement. “While our families are demanding SPPS moves to hybrid learning, our teacher’s union is delaying our ability to do so.”

The district will then determine if it’s ready to implement the first stage of hybrid learning on Monday, Oct. 19.

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