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Minnesota educators voice back-to-school concerns

"If it takes more time, fine. Take the time," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, on reopening schools.

ST PAUL, Minnesota — With one week to go before many Minnesota schools are back in session, educators still have a lot of concerns. Some of those concerns were outlined Tuesday during a virtual news conference with Education Minnesota—the state's largest teachers union.

"Reopening the buildings in a politicized pandemic, in a national racial reckoning, is the most difficult thing any of us in education has ever done. If it takes more time, fine. Take the time," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. 

Specht said that applies to distance learning too, if districts aren't prepared. 

Specht called the start date of the school year arbitrary, adding, "There is no reason why we could not be delaying in-person; there's no reason why we couldn't be delaying the start date in general." 

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One of the issues revolves around teachers who are seeking accommodations this school year. 

"I've bounced back and forth with looking for other jobs and trying to figure out if a leave of absence for a year was right for my family," said Sarah Haavisto, a kindergarten teacher in Two Harbors. 

Haavisto's 16-month-old daughter was born prematurely at 29 weeks, putting her at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Haavisto said she requested accommodations from her district and had to wait a month before finding out she was approved to distance teach. 

"Last night got an email from my principal late telling me that I did not have to come in today for our first day back and I just know that there are lots of people across the state that are waiting for that phone call that are not going to get that phone call... before they have to go back in person," Haavisto said.

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Some educators are choosing not to wait. Tom Connell, president of Education Minnesota/Edina, said they know of two teachers who have left the district because they did not receive accommodations or were not hearing back. 

Connell said the district needs to "slow it down." He added, "I just came out of a meeting with our district administrators and our school administrators and they asked me for my input and that's exactly what I said. It's hard to see that we've got the staffing for one but we also got some critical safety questions and instructional design questions." 

Some teachers are already facing issues with protocols around reporting cases of COVID-19. 

"All districts need to make protocols around reporting a priority. Not only do they need to make it a priority, they need the transfer of that information around the protocol to be a priority for all stakeholders," said Mary Fridgen, a music teacher and president of the United Teachers of South Washington County. 

There are also concerns around racial equity. 

Maria Higueros-Canny, who teaches multilingual learners at an elementary school in Brooklyn Park for Osseo Area Schools, said data needs to be considered beyond county numbers with communities of color being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

"It is not equitable to look at only Hennepin County data when our communities of color are affected at such high levels," Higueros-Canny said. 

She added, "Several of our staff have heard concerns and questions from our non-English speaking families. Even after the district attempted to communicate with multilingual families many did not understand the process, the choices or the deadlines for enrolling in our district's distance learning program." 

RELATED: Keeping kids safe from COVID-19 on the school bus

Heather Bakke, a special education teacher who is also on the board of directors for the National Education Association, urged the U.S. Senate to pass the HEROES Act to send more federal aid to schools. 

"Right now public schools are fending for themselves to find a way for PPE, cleaning supplies, fixing sinks, additional technology and more," Bakke said. 

No matter which learning model districts go with, Specht said it's important to stay flexible. 

"What our public schools look like in September will probably not be the way they look in November," Specht said. "It's imperative that policy makers at all levels create spaces for frontline educators, school staff and parents to make their voices heard."