Teachers share concerns as start of school approaches, education commissioner weighs in

During a typical year, the first day of school across Minnesota would only be two weeks away. The COVID-19 pandemic has districts changing plans with teachers raising concerns as the clock ticks down.

“How many of you are not sleeping?" asked Education Minnesota Vice President Bernie Burnham, at a rally in White Bear Lake on Monday.

Dozens of teachers wore red as they rallied ahead of the White Bear Lake Area School Board meeting. They held signs, spaced out on the lawn of the District Center.

“I don’t think we’re ready to come back safely yet,” said Kristin Chase, a Central Middle School band teacher. “We would love nothing more than do our jobs normally and get back to normal but if we are putting our students and our community at any kind of greater risk at all, knowingly, then we’re not serving our community right as a district and that’s just not OK.”

Chase advocated for distance learning to start to the school year.

“I hope that the school board hears our concerns and that there are too many unknowns with this plan,” she said.

Choir teacher Odelis Anderson is worried about the possibility of having more than a dozen students in class when school resumes.

“I was told today that actually because my classroom can hold more students than the average classroom there’s a big chance I’m going to be teaching 18 students in one class,” she said. “It’s just not possible, they did not take into account there are spaces in my classroom that are just not teachable.”

According to Anderson, choir students need to be spaced 10 to 12 feet apart, which is further than the six feet of distance recommended for typical classes.

She is also advocating for a distance learning start, telling 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS she has creative ideas for how to teach her students to sing remotely.

“My worst fear is even I could get sick and bring it to my classroom, a student bring it home and something catastrophic is going to happen,” she said.

Tiffany Dittrich, the union president, said they are still waiting for more details about how to set up classrooms to ensure students will stay safely apart.

They are also concerned about cleaning protocols and the instructional framework that will be used this year.

“We have a lot of questions that have yet to be answered and a very short period of time before our doors could be opened,” said Dittrich.

She called on district leaders to slow the start of the school year.

“Our most recent survey solicited 468 responses out of our 634 members, with 74% advocating for a distance learning start to the year,” she said. “It’s of immense concern for a lot of people and our teachers really want to do their job right and we believe that delaying that start just a little bit will allow us to be able to do that.”

As they brought their questions to district leaders, White Bear Lake Area Educators announced a new community safety initiative called Bears Protect Bears.

The White Bear Lake School Board is moving forward with plans for a hybrid learning model but voted Monday to delay the start date until Sept. 14.

District leaders did not respond to requests for an interview. A memo on the district’s website said, "Delaying the start of the school year will allow staff members to have more time to plan in preparation for providing students with the safest return to school this fall."

Other districts, including Bloomington, Roseville and Mounds View, have all changed course to start with distance learning.

“There’s never been, during my 20-year teaching career, a challenge like this,” said Josiah Hill, the St. Croix Education Association president.

The union represents about 550 Stillwater teachers. According to Hill, more than 490 members responded to a survey about fall learning with 74.5% preferring a distance learning start.

“The concerns are wide-ranging,” said Hill. “A lot of it has to do with personal health concerns. A lot of it has to do within the immediate household. A lot of it has to do with how can I serve students in, fill in the blank, a variety of physical education, vocal music, tech education [lessons]?”

He said when the district announced its plans for hybrid learning, members shared concerns. Two weeks ago they sent a letter to Stillwater Area Public School administrators and Board of Education suggesting they start with distance learning.

“At the heart of this continues to be how can we ensure we do this in a way that’s safe and sustainable so we aren’t giving our community whiplash by clicking that dial back and forth?” said Hill.

He said they’ve been working with school leaders on a path forward and getting answers to some of the teachers’ concerns.

“Everyone is trying to find a way where this is possible and more importantly safe,” said Hill. “These questions that we’re asking, that we’re trying to learn about to make sure this can be done safe, is just an extension of what happens in the classroom. We don’t want to put people at risk. We don’t want to be part of a plan or a system or a structure that ends up exacerbating this horrible pandemic that we’re all experiencing in real-time.”

Interim Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt declined a request for an interview. A spokesperson said they plan to move forward with the hybrid model.

Only 25% of Stillwater students chose online learning only, according to the district.

The state requires all districts to offer distance learning to those students who do not feel comfortable returning to the classroom.

In Minnesota’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin Schools, 75% of students either chose the hybrid model or did not respond and were automatically enrolled in the plan.

“I got a hundred emails in the last 24 hours from parents saying, ‘Stay the course, follow the model please get our kids in school safely,’” said Superintendent David Law. “I feel like we’re taking a cautious approach.”

All students will start with an orientation week from Sept. 8 through Sept. 11. Elementary students will then begin hybrid learning on Sept. 15. Middle and High School students will spend the first two weeks doing distance learning before switching to the hybrid model on Sept. 28.

“We’re going to take additional steps to give parents time to hear all of the potential concerns about COVID for multigenerational households, if people want to back out of the hybrid model to distance learning we’re going to allow that switch,” said Law. “We’re going to be flexible moving forward. We’ve staggered start times, spaced out classrooms, [equipped] every class with hand sanitizers and cleaning stations for between classes. Teachers will have to lose some instructional time to make classrooms clean but that’s more important.”

Teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin district still have concerns.

“I feel like distance learning might be the best option for now until we know more,” said Kari Smith, a kindergarten teacher.

Hundreds rallied on Monday ahead of the school board meeting advocating for staff safety.

“As an elementary school teacher, I feel like hybrid is a really scary option,” said Smith. “I’m being exposed to two different groups of kids every week and not even a day between to deep clean.”

Valerie Holthus, the Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota president, said about 80% of teachers surveyed felt distance learning was the safest way to teach kids in the district.

“I know that a lot of our teachers think that distance learning is the best way the safest way to teach our kids but after doing the survey only 39% of our teachers wanted to [actually] do distance learning,” said Holthus. “So they’re willing to put themselves in danger in the line of duty because it’s just that important to them.”

The number of cases in each county determines whether a district can do in-person or hybrid learning. The latest MDH numbers show 51% of counties are eligible for in-person learning for all. Another 26 counties qualify for in-person learning for elementary students.

Only 10 counties fall under the category requiring hybrid learning for all students. As of the last update, zero counties statewide qualify for distance-only learning.

“The state gave us a model and support by local county officials and we’re following it,” said Law. “We’re in a pandemic, my plan won’t ease the fears of a pandemic […] What our plan is aligned to is the safest practice that we can provide and I feel confident we’re following the guidance we had to move forward.”

Commissioner of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker said the teacher surveys are an important and useful tool for districts to consider.

“We’re keeping close watch on the influence that this virus is having in different communities,” she said. “I know that communities have surveyed staff, they’ve surveyed students, they’ve surveyed families. That is great information to bring to that table where we are engaging each other to identify exactly what is the next step.”

She said the county data needs to be considered carefully, along with a number of other factors.

“That county-based data will help get your best-case scenario, however, that needs to be measured against your ability to implement all of the health requirements,” she said. “Such as the physical distancing that would be expected, the hygiene practices like frequent hand-washing that would be expected as well as mask-wearing in school. That combination determines the learning model you can start your school year with.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked Ricker how they are making sure districts follow proper safety practices.

“We do have an expectation that districts are both supported by us and are consulting us in determining their safe learning practices,” she said.

The commissioner said they’ve developed regional support teams with the state education and health department experts to help guide districts.

“So no one feels they are making those decisions alone because our commitment is absolutely to be there,” said Ricker.

It’s been nearly a month since the state announced districts would get to choose.

“One of the things that was important to us in creating these three learning models — in person, that hybrid model or that distance learning model — was involving your school communities,” said Ricker.

As for the effectiveness of that process, she said, “I feel like engagement is an ongoing thing, you’re actually never really finished with engagement.”

Ricker said there are several resources for teachers who do not feel comfortable with their district’s approach.

First, she said the employee should report unsafe working conditions to their human resources department. If their concerns are not addressed, they can contact the Minnesota Department of Labor at OSHA.Compliance@state.mn.us, 651-284-5050 or 877-470-6742.

Employees who feel they should qualify to work remotely but are not granted that request can seek help through the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. You can fill out their form online or call 1-833-454-0148.

For families who have concerns about how schools or districts are handling safety protocols, contact MDE by emailing COVID-19.Questions.MDE@state.mn.us or calling 651-582-8200.