St. Paul teachers urge district to delay in-person learning until most staff vaccinated

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On Monday, Gov. Tim Walz announced teachers and school staff, childcare workers and those who are 65 years old and up will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine. It will be made available through a pilot program.

The decision comes a month after the Governor announced elementary schools across the state will be allowed to go back to in-person learning on Jan. 18.

Teachers who work for St. Paul Public Schools are pushing back against the decision, urging the district to delay until more educators and staff can be vaccinated.

“I think there’s a lot of fear and uncertainty,” said Jeff Garcia, a sixth grade special education teacher.

He is also an executive board member for the St. Paul Federation of Educators.

“There are still just some glaring holes in the district’s plan,” he said.

On Feb. 1, pre-K through second-grade students in SPPS will return to the classroom, along with early childhood special education and Special Education Federal IV programs students.

Third through fifth graders will return to full in-person learning on Feb. 16.

According to Garcia, the union is concerned about how lunchtime and busing will be handled, worried COVID-19 will continue to spread. They also have questions about how air filtration will be done and how the district will communicate with parents.

“Eighty percent of our families are families of color, Black families, Indigenous families,” said Garcia. “If we go back prematurely, the effects that’s going to have on our families, on our community, especially folks of color that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, they’re the ones that are going to hurt the most.”

He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that his comfort returning to the classroom depends on getting a vaccine.

“It’s possible to wait until that’s done and not disrupt kids learning, as much as teachers being out sick, or schools going back into virtual, or another wave of disease with the new variant comes into our schools,” he said. “That is much more disruptive to kids’ learning than waiting until staff are vaccinated.”

Under the state’s new pilot program, the district said SPPS has been allocated a total of 88 doses.

“Consistent with the governor’s plan, we are prioritizing those doses among our in-person, select special education staff at Bridgeview and Essential Kids Care staff,” said Kevin Burns, a district spokesperson. “Because these doses are extremely limited, we join the governor and state health officials in asking for patience as we work to expedite this process.”

During the Monday briefing, Minnesota Department of Health officials said demand for the vaccine is outpacing supply.

MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm explained that under the pilot program, more than one million people will now be eligible to receive their vaccines. This is in addition to 500,000 healthcare workers, staff and residents of long-term care facilities, she said.

The state, meanwhile, is receiving about 60,000 first doses per week. About 12,000 are being distributed this week to the nine sites outlined in the pilot program.

“We need to make sure especially our pre-K through five teachers are getting in and getting vaccinate,” said Walz, remarking that students can’t go back to the classroom if educators are sick. “I would note that the bulk our childcare workers are predominately women of color and we all know they’ve been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic.”

Still, state health officials defended the decision to allow in-person learning. Walz said they looked at data, which showed transmission rates were lower among elementary-aged students.

“We are also looking at the other risks we have to consider with students not actually being in school,” said Heather Mueller, deputy commissioner of education. “We know the important role schools play in the lives of children in addition to the academics – the nutritional needs met, they have mental health needs met, social needs met, they also have academic needs.”

The St. Paul Federation of Educators has concerns, however, that returning to soon will also lead to teacher resignations.

The union posted to its SPFE Facebook page on Sunday, in part, “Teachers have started resigning to protect their health. There are no ideal education models in the middle of a pandemic. Forcing some educators and students into an unsafe, in-person learning environment will only result in chaos and regular disruption to everyone’s education.”

The post also included a letter about two resignations last week at a district immersion school.

“This is the choice that teachers are having to make, they’re having to choose either going back with the district’s plan, with so much unclear […] or choosing to prioritize their health,” said Garcia. “If we have some patience and if we continue to make sure our families get what they need in the meantime, then we can go back to uninterrupted in-person when it’s safe.”

When 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked SPPS about the post, they told us, in part, “Union leadership is promoting their agenda on social media when, in fact, no one knows the reasons for a resignation except the person who has made that decision […] We are looking forward to welcoming students and staff back into our classrooms beginning Feb. 1, just as dozens of other school districts and other schools in St. Paul have done for weeks and months.”

The district released a statement in December about the decision to resume in-person learning, which they forwarded to us on Monday. Read the full statement below:

“Our students and teachers belong together in the classroom. Since March, Saint Paul Public Schools has been working to make this happen safely. Our plan to reopen our schools is in line with all of the measures and requirements outlined in the state’s updated Safe Learning Plan, and contains procedures to modify our learning model if and when necessary.

“SPPS is preparing to bring our youngest students back to school beginning Feb. 1.

“We have learned from other school districts in the state that have provided some form of in-person learning for their students. We have learned safety measures to protect our valued teachers and staff. We have learned from the experiences of our Essential Kids Care and Discovery Club staff, who have been in our buildings with SPPS students since March. We have learned more about COVID-19 itself, and the risk of spread in schools, elementary in particular, compared to community spread. We have also learned the consequences and inequity of shutting students out of our schools for education and resources for 10 months.

“The majority of public and non-public schools in Minnesota have been open for some form of in-person learning this school year, including many schools here in Saint Paul. Our SPPS schools are ready to do the same.

“Since August, we have developed and implemented Readiness Targets at each of our schools. In October we announced our readiness to open, and those targets remain in place today. At that time, COVID-19 cases were spiking, and we made the right decision to remain in distance learning. Today’s COVID-19 case rates are significantly lower than they were before winter break, and they continue to stabilize.

“Distance learning has not been optimal for many of our students. SPPS cannot simply hope that students will improve in the current learning model. We must act; we must use the best information we have to open our schools. The disparities in our children’s education are too large to ignore and too consequential to continue in a manner that serves some and not all. We believe an option to return is important for our community. The Virtual Learning School is available to all families who want to continue learning from home.

“We understand there is fear and apprehension about returning to school during a pandemic. Those feelings are real and many of us as SPPS parents share those feelings. Real world experiences from other school districts in Minnesota and around the country show us that schools being open does not equate to higher rates of community spread.

“Ideally we could plan on a definite date that all staff could receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The reality is that is not possible due to the many unknowns surrounding vaccine distribution. We cannot wait for all teachers to be vaccinated before opening. Our students cannot wait. Governor Walz has recommitted to the mitigation factors that have proven successful across the state since March in allowing elementary schools to open as soon as January 18.

“Our buildings are ready. We are thoughtfully implementing our return to school plans over the next several weeks. We are watching COVID-19 cases and working closely with state and local public health officials to ensure we can modify our plans as soon as it might be necessary.

"Saint Paul residents rely on their school district to provide students with relevant instruction, social/emotional support and resources to help them become their best selves. We take that bond of trust very seriously. SPPS values our teachers and all of our staff members. By working together, we can get our students and teachers back where they belong in a safe way.”