As Minnesota sees a loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in bars, restaurants and gyms, a number of local districts have been transitioning into in-person and hybrid learning.
Gov. Tim Walz’s updated Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-21 school year allows elementary schools across the state to implement in-person learning as long as districts follow additional COVID-19 mitigation strategies. However, the 14-day case rate per 10,000 in any given Minnesota county still impacts secondary schools. To keep schools from pivoting back to distance learning, the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, and those in the area’s districts are urging community members to do their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Todd Andrix, president of the Owatonna Education Association, said while teachers want students back in school, they also want children to be safe. The concern for some teachers rises when a student in their classroom tests positive for COVID-19, he said.
While teachers are still expressing concerns, Andrix said the message seems to have gotten through to students that they need to wear a mask to protect themselves, their community and relatives out of state.
“I’m thankful we’ve been as strict as we have,” Andrix said. “This is a real thing, and the risks are significant.”
A mix of individuals comprise the Owatonna Union of Educators, including those who are healthy, unhealthy, dealing with underlying conditions, young, elderly and pregnant. Among these individuals, Andrix said most understand COVID-19 is a real — and serious — issue.
Andrix said the union encourages its members to shop at small businesses and has given out thousands of gift cards to encourage local shopping and eating.
“The union is trying to support the local economy just like we ask them to support us,” he said.
One positive Andrix has noted is the smaller class sizes that have resulted from the pandemic. Teachers have noticed students are more willing to engage in class discussions with fewer students in the classroom.
“This is the first time in probably 20 years that class sizes have been that small,” Andrix said. “You can’t hide when there’s only 15 to 20 of you in the classroom. I think that’s a potentially good outcome of all of this.”
Education associations in Rice County
Northfield Public Schools is phasing in a gradual return, next week bringing early childhood students and preschoolers back to school with elementary students the following week. By February, middle school and high school students will return to hybrid learning.
Kevin Dahle, president of the Northfield Education Association, said he feels comfortable with Walz’s plan as long as the community follows the Minnesota Department of Health’s safety guidelines. He is pleased, too, with the Northfield school district’s efforts to gather staff feedback. Serving on the incident command team, which many districts have implemented in response to the pandemic, Dahle meets with the district weekly and bases decisions on Rice County numbers and staff safety.
Apart from a couple teachers, who may be concerned about the health of their family members, Dahle said district staff is generally comfortable with the plans in place.
As for staffing, Dahle said, “I would say overall Northfield did a good job in terms of keeping our case rates under control but at the end there before the holiday break we were having some concerns about staffing. That has to be part of the decision making process: ‘Do we have a healthy staff?’”
Dahle said Northfield Schools has found through a staff testing opportunity that COVID-19 case rates were generally low, about a 2% positivity rate out of 1,600 tests. He said the hope is to continue regular staff testing to keep COVID-19 out of the buildings.
Understanding that schools could pivot back to distance learning any time, Dahle said the district will continue moving forward with the phase it’s in as long as it can.
“I think we all just hope that we continue to practice safe social distancing, hand washing, to keep it under control,” Dahle said. “We all want our students back in the classroom.”
At Tri-City United Schools, Superintendent Lonnie Seifert said teachers tend to fall on a spectrum of how comfortable they feel returning to the classroom.
“Our goal is to have our teachers in the building and to provide them with an environment where they can feel secure and safe being on site,” Seifert said. “... We’re really trying to identify what are the barriers and how we can do things differently because these are unique times, so maybe we need to find unique [solutions] to make things work.”
John Head, president of the TCU Education Association, said while he feels the safety precautions in the building are sufficient, some staff who are medically fragile or nearing retirement are a bit more concerned about teaching in person. The district and the educators’ union figure out how to meet these teachers’ needs on a case by case basis, he said.
“There’s always going to be anxiety when working through issues related to COVID,” Head said. “I have meetings with staff weekly, staying as up to date as possible. The big thing we have comfort in is how little transmission has been through the schools. The real factor that it comes down to is community spread and how well people are wearing the masks in public places, but if the community isn’t taking those steps, the anxiety will obviously rise.”
Another factor that plays a role in keeping students in schools is the health of staff members. Finding substitute teachers to fill in for staff members who are out sick, either because of COVID-19 or another reason, has been a struggle for some districts during the pandemic.
Seifert said TCU has been “OK with subs” because staff in isolation have the option to teach remotely if they choose. In the hybrid model, he said specialists have also offered some of their services virtually.
Head said he urges the community to follow Walz’s precautions.
“I know there were parents really passionate about keeping kids in schools, so in order for TCU to really support the community as much as possible, they need to follow those guidelines,” Head said. “At least until we get to the point where vaccines are readily available.”
Added Seifert: “We request and ask that our families will support us. As long as we’re all working in that direction, maybe we don’t have to take a step back again this time.”
Faribault Education Association President Corey Luettel was asked to comment on behalf of Faribault Public Schools staff but said too many variables exist to represent all members of the union accurately.