MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Just a week before many elementary students return to in-person learning and with elementary school staff expected to return Feb. 1, the Minneapolis teachers union received a victory in Hennepin County District Court.
On Saturday, the court granted a limited temporary restraining order prohibiting Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) from requiring staff to return to work in person on Monday if they have obtained accommodations to work from home or if they are in the process of getting them.
"I literally did a happy dance in my kitchen," said Lindsey West, a fifth grade teacher at Clara Barton Open School in southwest Minneapolis.
West shares a home with her parents who have health issues and are considered high risk for COVID-19 complications.
Based on Gov. Tim Walz's executive order, West was able to do her job from home. She's been teaching from home since March. Then in the middle of January, West heard differently from MPS.
"You could no longer apply for an accommodation based on the individuals in your home. You could either just do it for yourself or take family medical leave which is unpaid unless you want to use your sick time," West explained.
At least 40% of MPS students have chosen to continue distance learning, according to court documents.
While West would still be teaching distance learners, she would have to do it from school.
"It was confusing to me because I was like, 'If I'm still the distance learning teacher, why can't I do it from home to limit my interactions with others?'" West asked.
West said she would still have to interact with students, for example, having to take on bus or lunch duties.
"It made me feel like I was being forced to choose between my family that I love and then my other family, which is the people I work with, including my students, and it felt just so unfair," West said.
MPS Spokesperson Dirk Tedmon said in a statement to KARE 11, "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, multifaceted effort and we will continue with our plans until and unless directed to do otherwise. We have made that commitment to our families and students."
The statement went on to say, "We are going to continue working to provide the 8,000 Minneapolis families who requested it the same opportunity to return to the classroom available to many other students across the state."
Greta Callahan, president of the teacher chapter for the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said she is not sure how many educators this affects because some — thinking they were no longer eligible to request accommodations — didn't apply, resigned, retired or took a leave of absence.
"Now at the eleventh hour, this [accommodation] form is created... thank goodness. So in the meantime, all of these people have the opportunity to seek this accommodation and stay home safely until that process is finalized," Callahan said.
In a press release on Monday, MPS said, "The court’s decision was a very narrow order that affirmed work MPS was already doing with MFT to make sure staff who need accommodations can request them. Prior to Saturday, MPS had received 232 ADA and FMLA requests, 172 of which were granted and 60 of which were in process."
“We are fully complying with the order," Superintendent Ed Graff went on to say in the press release. "Our concern is making sure employees who qualify for ADA and FMLA accommodations are able to receive them, and that we follow the Governor’s order to provide accommodations to the extent possible.”
This is just one of many issues the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals has with the district's plan for returning to the classroom. The union recently filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board against MPS.
"If they had consulted or worked with the educators on the ground floor, we could've said, 'This won't work, here's why. Try this instead. Oh did you think about this?' But they didn't. They unilaterally made these decisions and some of them are breaking our contract," Callahan said.
She went on to say, "I guarantee you that even if this didn't happen, the district isn't ready for students to return on February 8."
MPS said in its statement, "We are confident in our decision to return to in-person learning, as is our state-mandated Regional COVID Support Team, because MPS has taken all the steps and more that health experts have recommended to prioritize the health and safety of our staff and students."
West said she wants families to know that teachers want to be in the classroom but with so much uncertainty, West is grateful she doesn't have to return to the school on Monday.
"The idea of not being there for my students is something that makes me feel bad. It makes me feel terrible, it really does," West said. "But at the same time, the idea of putting my mother and my father at risk — or potentially even death — it filled me with terror."