Posted: Jan. 18 | Updated: Jan. 19
Hundreds of students walked out of class in St. Paul on Tuesday afternoon to demand their district move to distance learning for two weeks and improve COVID-19 safety measures.
At Harding High School, students gathered outside their building in backpacks, masks, sweatshirts and coats.
“If we don’t get N95 masks? Shut them down! If we don’t get weekly tests? Shut them down! If we don’t get engaged learning? Shut them down! If we don’t get buses? Shut them down! If we don’t get nurses? Shut them down!” students chanted.
“A large swathe of the student population are at home sick,” said high school senior Jerome Treadwell. “It’s just overall unsustainable.”
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Treadwell is a 17-year old senior who attends school at Highland Park High School. He’s also the executive director of MN Teen Activists and last year helped organize a statewide walkout to protest racial injustice.
The St. Paul district has battled issues similar to other Minnesota schools as COVID-19 surges throughout the state. In addition to high student absences, it has struggled to staff classrooms and find substitute teachers.
Just days after returning from winter break, district leaders asked parents to find alternative plans to get their children to school, saying they expected driver shortages and cancellations for the remainder of the school year as people continue to get sick.
“We have substitute teachers who are teaching out of their content area, and it’s really difficult to learn when you have a different substitute teacher every day,” said Treadwell. “So students already have a disservice while being in school. So what more of a disservice would it be if we just make adequate decisions to (distance) learning as well?”
In their list of nine demands from St. Paul Public Schools leaders, students are asking for PCR tests for all staff twice a week, regardless of vaccination, as well as faster turnaround for test results and weekly PCR or antigen tests for students. They’re asking for continued contact tracing from the school and a 10-day isolation period for those who test positive for the virus.
In an emailed statement, St. Paul Public Schools director of communications Kevin Burns said the district had no plans to move all students to distance learning, but that they had KN95 masks for staff and had ordered masks for students as well as additional rapid tests. The district currently provides weekly COVID-19 testing for staff who want it.
“St. Paul Public Schools respects students’ rights to free speech and peaceful assembly,” Burns wrote. “We support students taking a more active role in their own health, including getting vaccinated, wearing masks, getting tested for COVID-19 and staying home if they are sick.”
In an email sent to families on Tuesday afternoon, the district said they would temporarily move a school to virtual learning if that school has 25 percent of more of its classroom teachers absent for more than three days.
But St. Paul Federation of Educators president Leah VanDassor raised concerns the new district metric for when to close a school might not be a useful one.
“It’s inadequate,” VanDassor said. “Read the fine print there — 25 percent of classroom staff, not full school staff. That makes a huge difference. There’s more to making a school run well for students than having teachers in classrooms … It’s going to make it hard for any single building to reach this metric.”
She said the walkout and demands are completely student-led.
“We support the student voice in this,” VanDassor said. “This is definitely all them. Jerome Treadwell is the one who reached out to us (last week). It’s refreshing. This is their deal.”
Ultimately, VanDassor said the teacher’s union supports students’ demands to temporarily close St. Paul Public Schools.
“In-person education is still the highest priority that we should go with. And it’s possible right now that we need to dial back for a short amount of time to reset everything and give the system and all the parts a break and just let everybody try to get well,” VanDassor said.
After debating for hours Tuesday night, the district’s school board opted not to move to distance learning. The proposal for a two-week break failed narrowly, by a 3 to 4 vote.
Superintendent Joe Gothard said there were nine schools on the verge of moving to virtual learning, based on the school-by-school plan. He also told the board that virtual learning would have its own problems and that it would be difficult to tell if the situation with COVID was any better after kids were home for an extended period.
“And I think the community and our families, also, their fear is — we go out and we never come back,” Gothard said.
Some board members, lead by Chauntyll Allen, suggested the whole district should take a break, from Friday through Feb. 4.
“I think it gives time for the administration to get in the proper PPE, the tests that are on their way and the masks — whether it be the double masking or N95 masks,” Allen said. “It also gives an opportunity for teachers to directly connect, and I think that there's a lot of substitutes in buildings right now.”
Gothard urged the board to make every effort to keep kids in classrooms as much as possible, saying it was the best option for learning in the state's second-largest school district.
Reporter Tim Nelson and photojournalist Nicole Neri contributed to this report.
Correction (Jan. 18, 2022): An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of the student walkout on Tuesday.