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Minneapolis, St. Paul teacher unions propose plans to respond to COVID in schools

St. Paul educators say student absences are high, that here aren't enough bus drivers or substitutes to fill in and a consistent plan is crucial.

MINNEAPOLIS — Shakopee is the latest school district to cancel class because of COVID-19. There will be no class Friday and the Prior Lake-Savage and Osseo districts re-started distance learning.

In St. Paul, the teachers union calls these latest COVID struggles "unsustainable". 

Members are now laying out steps they want the superintendent to take, echoing what a similar group in Minneapolis has been pushing for months.

"I don't know how much longer we'll be able to hold on in this state of things," said Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff, acknowledging the hardships COVID has on the district at Monday's school board meeting.

On Monday, he says at least 400 teachers were absent related to the illness. 

"These operational considerations, whether we have the needed staff at school, is now the primary factor that we're evaluating," said Graff.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers union says its proposing specific solutions, that it has presented to the superintendent now for months.

Greta Callahan, president of the teachers chapter of the MFT, says, “Despite our proposed solutions, none of that has happened."

Some of the solutions include:

  • Reducing class sizes, which has academic benefits and would allow for actual physical distancing in classrooms and other instructional spaces to lower the risk of outbreaks that would force more students and educators to miss in-person instruction.
  • Accelerating the hiring and training of ESPs to fill the more than 10% of position vacancies that exist in the district, including those ESPs who play a vital role in the education of students who receive special education services.
  • Designating some teachers at each school to work remotely with students who cannot attend school in person because the students have tested positive for the virus or are isolating at home after an exposure. These would be called “QuaranTeams.”
  • Hiring enough substitute teachers and bus drivers to meet the pressing demands of educating students during a pandemic.

"Our commitment is to keep learning and listening and adapting as needed," said Superintendent Graff at the meeting.

Across the river, the St. Paul Federation of Educators union is making similar demands to the school board, citing the omicron surge. 

"They're making it work, as best they can," said Jeff Garcia, who sits on the union's executive board and is a special education teacher. "We want to come to it in good faith, but also to give a realistic portrayal of what's going on in the buildings."

There are days Garcia says entire departments don't have teachers. Last week, he said two-thirds of the students in his building were absent.

The SPFE recommends the school board direct Superintendent Joe Gothard and SPPS administration to enact the following steps:

  • Create a metric with SPFE to temporarily shift to remote learning for individual schools that takes into account transportation availability, staffing and substitute numbers, and COVID-19 positive cases at the site.
  • Provide KN95 masks for staff and students and provide surgical masks immediately until more KN95s are available.
  • Provide additional PCR tests for all staff to test twice a week regardless of vaccination status and explore options to create a faster turnaround for staff to receive test results.
  • Provide antigen or PCR tests for all students to test weekly.
  • Provide each school with a sufficient supply of take-home COVID-19 tests so any student exhibiting cold or flu symptoms and any student, staff member or school volunteer who requests one can have one.
  • Continue contact tracing, notifying individuals who have been in close contact and quarantining according to Minnesota Department of Health guidelines.
  • Maintain the 10-day isolation period for individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or require two negative antigen tests to return to school or work sooner.
  • Allow schools to create a modified daily schedule to meet the needs of students in the safest, most educationally sound manner.
  • Call on the city and county to support SPPS in finding solutions to make sure our students and families are safe.

"I would like to see direct action steps, not just a commitment to listen," said Garcia. "There needs to be protection for everybody in our building from custodial to nutrition, all the way up to administration."

Superintendent Gothard released a statement saying he's committed to serving students and staff.

"Saint Paul Public Schools is coordinating closely with our city and county public health partners to monitor case rates in the community and within our schools. We continue to meet or exceed CDC guidelines for reducing the spread of COVID-19, including requiring masks in all of our buildings, requiring our staff to be vaccinated or get tested weekly, and reminding everyone to stay home if they are sick and get tested regularly. We also continue to host vaccine clinics on a weekly basis and have tests available for staff and students. Our community depends on us to open our doors so we can do what we do best: teach, support and nurture our students in an environment where they feel cared for with adults they trust. We are keeping a close eye on our staffing levels and case rates and are prepared to shift if and when doing so is the best option for our students, staff and community as a whole."

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