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Potential teacher strike could be looming in Minneapolis, St. Paul

Both teachers' unions are in mediation with district leaders, negotiating over class sizes, wages and COVID-19 issues, among other things.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Editor's Note: The above video first aired at 6 p.m. on Jan. 19, 2022 ahead of Wednesday's vote.

Teachers' unions in both St. Paul and Minneapolis are officially in mediation. Some leaders say they're prepared to strike if negotiations with the districts don't go well.

Hundreds of members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators rallied this week, ahead of mediation that started Wednesday. The president, Leah VanDassor, says it's time to work together to "create the schools our children deserve."

"Right now, the likelihood of a strike is really up to how strongly the district pays attention to what we're doing now," said VanDassor at the rally.

The group's demands center around their contract and include class size limits, more mental health supports and higher wages.

"The workers have found the last two years that they’re needed and not being respected for the work they do," said VanDassor.

The demands are similar to some of those the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers union says its been fighting for since the start of COVID-19 and when its contract expired a year ago.

"This is essentially two years of fighting to get agreements in place around safe and stable schools," said MFT president of the teacher chapter Greta Callahan.

On Wednesday night, the MFT took another step toward the possibility of a strike with a unanimous vote to give members the authority to take a strike authorization vote.

RELATED: SPPS won't shift entire district to distance learning

"Doesn't mean our members will, but it is our next tool in the process that we have that the law has laid out that can hopefully help us at the mediation table get some of the wins we need for our kids," said Callahan.

She says the move also strengthens their power at the bargaining table.

"The best way for us to avoid a strike, is to be strike ready," said Callahan. "Yes, we've gone through this legal process, but we've also tried everything else."

From petitions, press conferences and rallies, Callahan says – all of which is to support the districts' some 30,000 students. Their future, hanging in the balance for now, as the two unions continue to plot out their plan. 

It remains unclear what, if any, action will happen next, including whether teachers would ever walk off the job.

“For almost two years, we’ve been trying to reach agreements around safe and stable schools for students and those closest to them, but progress has been frustratingly slow,” Callahan said in a statement following the vote. “We want the administration to feel the same urgency we do about addressing the mental health crisis in our schools, reducing class sizes, controlling caseloads in special education, and increasing educator compensation so that we don’t continue to lose staff, especially educators of color, to surrounding districts and other professions.”

The Minneapolis Public School wrote this ahead Wednesday's vote:

Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59 Teacher Chapter (MFT 59) began negotiations on the 2021-2023 contract in February 2021, in anticipation of securing a new contract by the start of this school year on July 1, 2021. After 10 bargaining sessions, MPS was no closer to a signed contract, and our educators are currently working without an active contract. For this reason, last October, Minneapolis Public Schools petitioned to move contract negotiations with MFT 59 into mediation with the Bureau of Mediation. An overview of our negotiation sessions to date is available on this webpage. While an active contract impacts many elements -- including salary and benefits for our employees -- MPS is also committed to reaching agreements on timely issues such as COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Throughout the pandemic, MPS has gone above and beyond in its COVID mitigation strategies to provide a safe environment for our students and staff. MPS has been commended by the Minnesota Department of Health for following best practices, including: 

 Promoting vaccination, including hosting vaccine clinics at several schools and district buildings and offering paid time off for employees to get their vaccines and boosters

● Consistent and correct mask use, mandated in all MPS buildings, and most recently KN95 masks for all employees 

● Physical distancing whenever possible, per Minnesota Department of Health guidelines. 

● Requiring MPS employees to be vaccinated or take weekly COVID tests 

● Screening tests for unvaccinated MPS student-athletes on a weekly basis 

● Ventilation, operating at least two hours before and two hours after building occupancy and the highest rated filters (MERV 11- 14 or HEPA) 

● Handwashing and respiratory etiquette, strongly encouraged for all MPS students and staff on throughout each day 

● Staying home when sick and getting tested to mitigate potential spread 

● Sending sick people home to heal, students and staff alike 

● Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine, in partnership with the Minneapolis Health Department 

● Cleaning and disinfection, for which we thank our janitorial staff and building engineers 

As of this writing, we are aware that MFT 59 is meeting tonight to discuss strike preparedness. While we have not been notified of whether or not that includes a strike vote, MPS continues to participate in mediation with a commitment to fairly, safely and competitively compensate our educators through our contract.

RELATED: St. Paul students walk out over district's handling of COVID-19

St. Paul Public Schools said it wasn't going to share a comment beyond what it wrote on Tuesday regarding a student walk-out around COVID safety. That read, in part:

In addition to offering weekly COVID-19 tests for all staff in our buildings, and providing take-home tests for students showing symptoms of COVID-19, SPPS is also taking additional steps to help ensure the health and wellness of all students and staff, including: 

● Making medical grade and N95 masks available for all staff members; these masks have also been ordered for students 

● Ordering additional rapid tests for staff and student use 

● Developing school-by-school metrics to determine if/when a building should temporarily shift to virtual learning 

● Continuing isolation and quarantine of students and staff per the district’s updated guidelines 

Continuing to hold weekly vaccine clinics at 360 Colborne and Gordon Parks High School, as well as other community-hosted clinics 

● Continuing to require masks for everyone in our buildings 

● Pausing non-essential activities including in-person school tours and field trips 

As a district, it is our responsibility to ensure students who cannot stay home have a safe place to be, with access to food and support for online learning, as well as to provide essential in-person services for students receiving special education. Therefore, if any schools move to virtual learning, it will include a requirement that all staff members at the affected site(s) who are not sick or in quarantine report to work. The district will continually monitor staffing levels and operational readiness, and provide staffing resources as they become available so students and teachers can return to in-person learning as soon as possible.

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