ST. PAUL — Teachers from some of Minnesota’s largest school districts are voicing concerns about the return to in-person instruction, noting that they have yet to be vaccinated at a time when the COVID-19 virus is still spreading.

St. Paul teachers rallied Tuesday evening, Jan. 12, to urge district leaders to delay the reopening of elementary schools, while Minneapolis educators, nurses and parents said they plan to hold daily news conferences this week to highlight their concerns.

Many of Minnesota’s youngest students are set to go back to full classrooms as early as next week, following Gov. Tim Walz guidance last month that allows for elementary schools to reopen regardless of county case rates of the virus.

“It really took our teachers off guard,” said Nick Faber, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators. “This was announced just as we were seeing a new strain of the virus coming into this country.”

Minneapolis and St. Paul have been in distance learning since the pandemic began but are planning to resume in-person instruction next month. Districts are implementing the state’s recommendations by bringing back the youngest students first, and adding older students in a phased manner throughout the spring.

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The new plan deviates from earlier state guidance that recommended school districts follow a COVID-19 metric when deciding whether to open in person, go to full-time distance learning or choose a hybrid setting that cut classroom sizes in half.

Many districts opened last fall in a hybrid model, but it wasn’t long before classrooms or entire schools were forced to quarantine for sickness or exposure to the virus.

Angela Wilcox, a teacher and the international baccalaureate coordinator at Hopkins North Junior High, said she’s looking for other jobs after spending 31 years in education. Her district is bringing back the youngest students on Tuesday, and starting next month will welcome back older students at 25 percent capacity, for one day a week.

Wilcox is eager to meet her kids in person, some of whom she’s never even seen because they’ve never turned on their cameras.

“And I know that some of our students and families are really struggling with distance learning,” she said. “So I understand the push to get kids back in the building even if it’s only one day a week.”

Angela Wilcox is the international baccalaureate coordinator at Hopkins North Junior High. She's expected to return to in-person teaching in February and is worried about contracting the virus before getting vaccinated. (Courtesy of Angela Wilcox)
Angela Wilcox is the international baccalaureate coordinator at Hopkins North Junior High. She's expected to return to in-person teaching in February and is worried about contracting the virus before getting vaccinated. (Courtesy of Angela Wilcox)

‘I’m feeling baffled’

But Wilcox, who has asthma, points out that a vaccine for teachers is finally within sight, and yet it won’t happen before many of them return to the classroom.

“I'm feeling baffled — I think (that) is the best word. I feel like the timing of this does not make sense to me just from a data and science perspective,” she said. “It’s imminent that we will be able to be vaccinated, so to bring back seventh through 12th graders at this moment in the trajectory of the virus before teachers have been vaccinated doesn’t make sense to me.”

State officials have noted the importance of schools for students’ education and emotional and social development. They now say districts should prioritize reopening schools for elementary kids regardless of local COVID-19 data. But they are required to implement additional safety measures like regular testing and face shields for teachers. Physical distancing recommendations are now down to 3 feet.

The safety measures don’t ease teachers’ anxieties. Faber said some are worried about bringing the virus to other family members who have preexisting conditions that put them at risk of severe illness.

“Schools are very dynamic places,” he said. “This is not just about students coming and going, it’s about students coming and going and interacting with bus drivers with other parents that come in the building to drop kids off. There is a lot of activity.”

No ‘great choice’

But many parents, who say they trust state officials and their latest guidance, are eager to return to the balance and structure that a school day provides.

Like a lot of parents during the pandemic, Joanna Schnedler has been trying to balance work and remote learning for her kids. The Richfield, Minn., woman was able to send her kids to school in the fall, but then her school shut down again in December.

“Part of it is trying to navigate work-life balance for both of us in a way that we can give them the best of ourselves when they’re home and we can give the best of ourselves to our jobs while they’re at school,” she said. “I don’t know that there is a great choice. I do believe that the people that are running things are doing the best that they can with the data they have and what they know.”

Later this month, Schnedler will be able to send her first grader back to school four days a week, while her preschooler will likely return for half days

State officials say the guidance takes into account research that shows young kids are not getting sick from COVID-19 at the same rates as adults or even older students in middle and high schools.

Still, not all parents are excited to send their kids back. Full-time distance learning is still an option for all families. And with bars and restaurants reopening this week, some say the back and forth has caused confusion about what exactly is the right decision.