Judge rules Minneapolis teachers with accommodations can work from home

Updated: January 31, 2021 10:53 PM
Created: January 31, 2021 01:45 PM

Monday was supposed to be a return-to-work day for hundreds of Minneapolis Public Schools teachers and staff. 

But a Hennepin County judge has granted a temporary restraining order for educators wanting to remain home because of concerns about the pandemic. 

“For me, it was huge,” said Lindsey West, a fifth-grade teacher at the Barton Open School.

She’s among an unknown number of teachers who’ve applied for an accommodation to work from home, where she lives with her two kids and her senior parents. 

"The idea of exposing them to COVID and something terrible happening to them was the heartbreaking reality that I was dealing with this past week,” West said.

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On Saturday, District Judge Susan Robiner issued a ruling, saying the school district can’t require staff to return to work if they previously applied, or are in the process of obtaining an accommodation. 

“The risk of contracting a serious illness which has killed almost a half-million people in the United States is axiomatically a profound harm," Robiner wrote in the 11-page document.

The president of the Minneapolis teachers union says she’s relieved about the ruling.  

"MPS blanketly denied and didn't give anyone the opportunity to go through this process,” said Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. 

“If somebody has a high-risk family member, they should have the option to fill out a form — and other districts have done this — to seek an accommodation. That doesn't mean MPS has to grant it. But it does mean they have to go through this process,” she added. 

The judge noted that 40% of district parents say their children would not return to in-person instruction, while 48% said they would. 11%, according to the ruling, were undecided. 

In a statement Sunday, an MPS spokesperson says the district is moving forward with plans for in-person schooling starting Monday, Feb. 8. 

"We have said all along that it is our responsibility to continue planning for in-person learning, so that when the time is right, we are able to act. Returning a large district to in-person learning is a complex, multi-faceted effort, and we will continue with our plans until and unless directed to do otherwise,” the statement says. 

But right now, some parents say they feel in limbo about what will happen in the next few weeks. 

“We’re just rolling with the punches right now, like a lot of other people, you know,” said Tracy Jefferson, a former MPS employee with a son in a suburban school district. 

He says there’s a lot of juggling going on right now between child care and safety for parents in the metro.   

"I think we need to get these kids back into school because there’s nothing for them to do,” Jefferson said. "It's scary, but what are we going to do? Keep waiting for it to go away? Because it seems sometimes like it's not going to go away.”

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Judge Robiner also agreed the district appears to have unilaterally changed the teacher contract’s reassignment procedures.

Last week, the teacher’s union filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board.

“MPS has reassigned all these teachers now to different students, and students have different teachers,” Callahan said. “Come Feb. 8, our kids' wheels are going to turn upside down. It’s not just the platform you’re going to be under, you now have to get to know a new educator, new classmates.”

Another court hearing is set for Feb. 9 — one day after Minneapolis students return to the classroom — to further discuss the temporary restraining order on accommodations.

MPS says in-person learning for students from pre-K to fifth grade will be fully in place by Feb. 22. Sixth through 12th graders will continue distance learning. 

For now, West says she’s going to keep her 4-year-old daughter Olivia at home instead of going to pre-K. 

She says she leans on the side of caution but says parents have to make whatever decision is best for them and their children. 

“Don’t let people give you the runaround because your kids are what’s most important for you,” West said. “It’s your right.”  

And for her family?

“It’s doesn’t make it safe until we’re vaccinated to be mingling with people for multiple hours a day,” she declares. “Doesn’t make sense to me.”

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